5 October Surprises From Past Presidential Elections

An October surprise is any bit of news that breaks right before an election that has the capability to help determine the outcome of the race. Since voters are often swayed by these revelations, the right October surprise can swing a losing campaign right into White House. Here are a few notable examples.

1968: LBJ calls off the bombs.

The 1968 race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey looked like it would be an electoral rout. Nixon successfully ferreted away Southern Democrats who weren't too keen on Humphrey's support of civil rights, and liberal Democrats were disgusted with Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, third-party candidate George Wallace eroded some of the historical Democratic base that Humphrey would normally have won. Late in the campaign, Humphrey appeared to be doomed.

Right before the election, though, incumbent Democrat LBJ pulled a trick of his own. On October 31, 1968, he announced an immediate halt to all bombing in North Vietnam. This peaceful move, coupled with Senator Eugene McCarthy's late-October endorsement of Humphrey, unified the Democratic base and pulled Humphrey even with Nixon in the polls. Although Nixon obviously won the election and had a handy 301-to-191 majority of the electoral votes, he won the popular vote by just over 500,000, a much closer margin than anyone expected prior to LBJ's bombing cessation.

1972: Peace is at hand. Again.

Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972 is infamous for giving birth to the Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal, but it's easy to see why Nixon would have been a bit nervous about his electoral chances. After all, voters elected him on a platform of ending the Vietnam War, which was still raging on. Although Nixon was probably going to beat challenger George McGovern anyway, an October surprise certainly didn't hurt his chances. Just like four years earlier, this one involved Vietnam. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger appeared at the White House on October 26 and announced to reporters that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. It was quite an announcement, and apparently not one that Nixon scripted. On White House tapes, he can be heard telling Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, "I wouldn't have said that."

The announcement gave Nixon's already stout lead another bump, though, and he ended up winning a landslide victory with almost 61% of the popular vote. You may recall that peace wasn't quite at hand; the war continued for another two and a half years.

1980: The Iran hostages remain in captivity.

Prior to the 1980 election the yearlong saga of the Iran hostage crisis held the nation's attention. If incumbent Jimmy Carter could somehow get the hostages freed before voters headed to the polls, he'd gain a serious leg up on challenger Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately for Carter, it didn't happen. In fact, the Iranian government decided right before the election that the hostages wouldn't be freed until the voting was over, and Reagan won the White House.

This bad news, coupled with the fact that the hostages were finally freed on the day of Reagan's inauguration the following January, leads some people to believe that the Reagan camp made some sort of backdoor deal with the Iranian government in order to secure the election. In return for hanging onto the hostages to prevent an October surprise in Carter's favor, the Iranian government would receive weapons from the Reagan administration. Although two congressional investigations found these claims to be groundless, conspiracy theorists insist Reagan cut the deal.

1992: Iran-Contra scandal makes a comeback.

Although it may be difficult to remember now, the 1992 race was a fairly heated one. Incumbent George H.W. Bush faced two challengers, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot, and both seemed capable of winning the election. (Perot may now be little more than a footnote in our minds, but at points in 1992 he actually led all candidates in national polls.) Four days before the election, though, the surprise showed up. Caspar Weinberger, who had been Reagan's Secretary of Defense, was indicted for lying to the independent counsel that had investigated the Iran-Contra scandal. Since Bush had served with Weinberger and had so far managed to avoid much of the Iran-Contra taint, this development seemed to be a blow to his reelection chances. Obviously, it didn't help, and Clinton won the election handily. Bush gave Weinberger a lame-duck pardon the next month.

2000: George W. Bush takes a tipple.

Any race as tightly contested as the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush is bound to have an October surprise. In fact, though, this election's stunner didn't break until November. Less than a week before voters headed to the polls, a Fox News report surfaced that Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence in Maine in 1976 following a night of boozing with former world tennis champion John Newcombe. Instead of trying to fight the accusation, Bush confirmed the story and told reporters, "I'm not proud of that. I made some mistakes. I occasionally drank too much, and I did that night. I learned my lesson." And, well, you know the rest.

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.

Big Questions
What Is Fair Trade?

What is fair trade?

Shannon Fisher:

Fair trade is a system of manufacturing and purchasing intended to:

1) level the economic playing field for underdeveloped nations; and

2) protect against human rights abuses in the Global South.

Fair trade farmers are guaranteed fair market prices for their crops, and farm workers are guaranteed a living wage, which means workers who farm fair trade products and ingredients are guaranteed to earn enough to support their families and comfortably live in their communities. There are rules against inhumane work practices. Fair trade farming organizations are monitored for a safe work environment, lack of discrimination, the freedom to organize, and strict adherence to child labor laws. Agrochemicals and GMOs are also forbidden. If these rules are not followed, a product will not receive fair trade certification.

The quality of life in many communities producing fair trade-certified goods is greatly improved. Sometimes, farming communities are given profit sharing from the companies that source their ingredients, and those profits go to improving the community as a whole—be it with a library, medical facilities, town infrastructure, or opening small businesses to support the residents. A major goal of fair trade is to help foster sustainable development around the globe. By helping farming communities in third-world countries, the economy of the entire region gets a boost.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


More from mental floss studios