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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.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

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