In US political history, the "October surprise" means a happenstance or deliberately-timed event that explodes at the campaign's eleventh hour. While the term was coined by William Casey, a Ronald Reagan campaign manager during the 1980 campaign, "late-in-the-election bombshells" were dropped long before that and are still in use.
October Surprise: Blast from the Past
"The most dramatic example of these electoral manoeuvres was the 'sabotage' by the Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon of the Vietnam War peace agreement, in the 1968 elections", opines Dr Heinz Dieterich, director of the Centre for Transition Sciences (CTS) at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City, and coordinator at the World Advanced Research Project (WARP).
On 31 October 1968, amid the presidential campaign, then incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson announced an immediate suspension of all bombing in North Vietnam and the start of new peace negotiations between Saigon and the Viet Cong. The manoeuvre seemingly bolstered the election odds of Hubert Humphrey, a Democratic nominee and LBJ's vice president. In response to that, Richard Nixon reportedly reached out to South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu and asked him not to attend the peace talks, promising a better deal if he was elected. On 2 November 1968, The New York Times released an article eloquently titled "Thieu says Saigon cannot join Paris talks under present plan". A few days later Humphrey lost to Nixon on Election Day, while the Vietnam War continued.
Four years later, the Nixon campaign resorted to a similar political manoeuvre: although the Paris deal between the North and South Vietnam was falling apart in October 1972, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger claimed that "peace is at hand", which apparently gave a boost to Nixon paving the way to his second term. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War lasted for another two-and-a-half years and ended in April 1975.
"Nixon's ploy was successfully repeated in the 1980 elections, whose main theme was the release of American political prisoners in Iran", recalls Dieterich.
52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage from 4 November 1979. The last-minute release of the prisoners could have tipped the balance in President Jimmy Carter's favour, but it never happened. They were freed exactly on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration, which prompted suspicions that the Republican presidential candidate had made a secret deal with the Iranian government to postpone the release of the hostages and thus pull the rug from under Carter. According to Politico, two congressional probes found no evidence of Iran-Reagan conspiracy, however, some high profile figures and ex-Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr insisted that a "covert deal" had indeed been struck.
Will Trump Stir Up Tensions in the Middle East?
"Trump is preparing his own 'October surprise' to snatch the electoral victory from the Democrats in a 2020 contest", Dieterich suggests, adding that there are at least three scenarios with different degrees of certainty which may be instrumentalised by the Trump administration.
First, as Donald Trump has recently doubled down on pressuring Iran, there are fears that the president may proceed with a military option, the professor notes.
The president's latest confession that he wanted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dead has added to concerns over Trump's war plans in the Middle East. Besides this, the Pentagon has sent more troops and military equipment to north-eastern Syria, while the US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, paid a rare visit to al-Hasakah and held summits with Kurdish leaders. Syria is seen by Tehran as an important part of Iran's Axis of Resistance. Along with Iran, the Arab Republic and its government have been subjected to sweeping sanctions by Washington, which is also denying Damascus access to Syria's oil reserves. Syria's crude wealth is currently controlled by the US-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Still, Dieterich doubts that the Trump administration would opt for an open conflict in the Middle East ahead of the election: Iran is a militarily powerful state; Washington's European allies are unlikely to support a US military adventure against Iran, much in the same vein as they do not support the White House's "maximum pressure" policy; the US military establishment is unlikely to support Trump either.
Is Venezuela in Trump's Cross Hairs?
Second, the Trump administration may target the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro, whom it failed to topple in January 2019, the academic continues.
Last spring, Washington resorted to a series of psy-ops against Caracas, seeking to demoralise its leadership and people by indicting Maduro along with other 14 former and present officials on alleged "narco-terrorism" charges on 26 March and then kicking off a wider “anti-narcotics” operation in the Caribbean in April, which, according to the Associated Press, became the largest military deployment since the US invasion of Panama in 1989.
In May, the Venezuelan Armed Forces prevented an amphibious mercenary operation led by a US private military company, Silvercorp USA. However, the White House rushed to distance itself from the botched raid, stressing that it had nothing to do with it.
Still, according to Dieterich, neither a new spectacular operation nor a potential invasion of Venezuela by the US is likely, as it would take a lot of time, effort, and money and may not play out well in the eyes of the American voters. Besides this, the US believes that the Maduro government is weak enough to collapse by itself, the academic remarks.
What is more probable, according to Dieterich, is a "maritime blockade of Iranian energy supplies via the Miami-Dominican Republic-Guyana semicircle, outside the Venezuelan maritime borders, combined with the threat of an attack on Iran if it responds in the Persian Gulf".
This is the most likely conventional military option to thwart the Venezuelan-Iranian energy cooperation that is going on unhindered under the US' nose and in open defiance of the White House's "maximum pressure" campaign, the academic believes.
A third potential "October surprise" could be the release of an anti-COVID-19 vaccine right before the election by President Trump.
Given that the US accounts for over 200,000 coronavirus-related deaths, the introduction of a vaccine could boost Trump's chances of being re-elected, according to the professor. The problem is that despite Washington pouring $10 billion into vaccine research earlier this year, Western companies have yet to roll out a safe and efficient anti-COVID drug, Dieterich emphasises.
It was initially announced that British-Swedish AstraZeneca's vaccine candidate AZD1222 would be ready by October. On 25 August, Financial Times reported that the Trump administration had been considering fast-tracking AZD1222 through an Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) on the basis of a 10,000-subject Phase 3 clinical trial. However, responding to the report, AstraZeneca's spokesperson refuted the assumption that the company had been in talks with the White House over the EUA, adding that it "anticipate[d] efficacy results" of the Phase 3 trials "later this year". Furthermore, after the temporary suspension of AZD1222's trials due to neurological symptoms faced by two of its participants, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) halted the COVID drug's tests in the US in September.
On 23 September, American company Johnson and Johnson signalled that it had started Phase 3 studies of its vaccine candidate; it does not appear probable that it will be ready before the November elections, according to the professor.
"There will only be safe vaccines available from Russia and China", the professor says. "For propaganda reasons Trump will not dare to use them and will try to impose some improvised flawed Western vaccine against the will of the American scientific community".
Dieterich does not rule out that Trump's "October surprise" may never materialise and only time will tell who will come out on top and how the election results will affect the already deeply polarised nation.