Mother Nature Plays Politics

Today Hurricane Sandy is the most important woman in the swing states.

Barack Obama speaks to the press after a briefing on hurricane Sandy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington on Sunday.
President Obama at a briefing on Hurricane Sandy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington on Sunday

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Hurricane Sandy has interrupted the campaign, which makes her the most important woman in the swing states. 

Politics has taken a pause, but we all know it’s a temporary one. It’s unseemly to talk about politics with so many people about to face genuine danger. Then again, this campaign already has broken a lot of old rules. Candidates used to be loosely constrained by the facts. Not so much any more. Candidates used to be prohibited from making political attacks during a fresh national security crisis. So it seems inevitable that Sandy will become a political force. It’s also fitting for a campaign that has so often felt like a skirmish on the side stage that here we are facing deadly realities. In a sense, though, this storm touches on what this campaign has always been about: What should the federal government do, and does it have the resources to do it? We are eight days away from an election. This is the 2012 campaign’s October surprise. (Though given the way this campaign has unfolded, there might be a November surprise.) 

Natural disasters can hit presidents in two ways. In 2004, President Bush visited victims of Hurricane Francis in early September as his party was holding its convention. He played the first responder role then. A year later, Hurricane Katrina sidetracked his presidency. If presidents get more blame for a weak economy than perhaps they deserve, there are also moments when there are political benefits to the office. In times like this, Americans—Democrat and Republican alike—turn to government. 

President Obama pulled himself off the campaign trail on Monday and returned from Florida before he attended a single event. He’s not campaigning for at least two days. For the moment, in the major story of the day, he has a key role. As I type this, word has arrived from the White House that the president is in the Situation Room talking with his advisers, and as I review it, he has just finished speaking to reporters in the briefing room. “I’m not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” said the president. “I’m worried about the impact on families.” Still, there will be some poetical cost or gain based on how his administration manages the disaster that all the forecasters say is coming. (Political scientists have even measured this.)

What does Mitt Romney do? Before the storm hit, he was trying to build the sense of a campaign that is rising as it approaches the finish line. His supporters are fired up like never before, but he’s not gaining on the president as he did after the first debate. Nate Silver says they have returned to the condition they were in during the spring and summer, which puts Obama in the better position. 

Romney needs to create a bandwagon effect to lure undecided voters. He has canceled his campaign events Monday and Tuesday. In the interim, it’s hard to stay in the story without looking like he’s seeking political gain. His campaign informed reporters that he was on the phone with the governors of Virginia and New Jersey monitoring the situation. It’s not quite clear what “monitoring” means in this context since he has no formal role to pay. (As I type this from Washington, a gust caused the windows to make such a noise that I thought it was the door opening.) Romney has also suspended his campaign fundraising emails into the affected states, as has the president.

All of this stopped activity doesn’t mean that the campaigns aren’t trying to skewer each other under the table. In Ohio, they are engaged in a heated fight over the auto bailout, an important issue in the state where the economy is closely tied to the car industry. On Sunday, the Romney campaign released an ad suggesting Chrysler, a company saved in the bailout and sold to Fiat, would be making cars in China. It was an extension of a false claim made by Romney that the firm would be making all cars in China. The Obama campaign responded with its own ad.

Romney has been talking a lot about bipartisanship lately on the stump. It appeals to those undecided, married, suburban voters he and the president need in the battleground states. The president has been trying to sound this theme, too. If they were both serious about appealing to those voters, you could imagine one candidate offering to have his volunteers join with the other campaign in a relief effort in the hardest-hit areas of the states. The campaign that didn’t think of this first would probably decline, giving the one that suggested the joint army of altruism the opportunity to look above it all while causing no practical problem for the campaign. The only problem for a candidate who made this offer would be if the other campaign agreed to it. It would deprive whichever campaign was losing of important manpower to get out the vote. 

OK, back from fantasyland.

The presidency has a performance aspect to it, especially during times of crisis, so evaluating the candidates now in a political context is part of evaluating them for the job they will hold. But there’s also a practical effect of the storm. It may hamper early voting, and it may limit the organization-building benefits of candidate visits. The rains and winds could keep people from their polling places in North Carolina, and if the winter storm kicks up in Ohio, that could affect in-person voting there, too. It could also affect the door-to-door canvassing that’s supposed to take place in those states. Virginia is the only state affected by the storm that has absentee voting, which requires an excuse and doesn’t really take place in person, so the state won’t be affected as much as the others.

Two days of no campaign events means two days when the candidate can’t be used to attract voters. When candidates come to town, it initiates a range of organizing efforts—including busing voters to the polls after rallies—that won’t take place if the candidate isn’t in town. Bill Clinton has stepped in for Obama during the crisis period, which might be a blessing. Clinton’s convention speech was better received than Obama’s acceptance speech because he is a more articulate spokesman. On the eve of the storm, Clinton told voters in Connecticut: “We’re coming down to the 11th hour. We’re facing a violent storm. It’s nothing compared to the storm we’ll face if you don’t make the right decision in this election.”

Any disruption in the early vote or ability to harness candidate visits would probably hurt Democrats. Their voters are harder to turn out, so each day lost is a lost chance to get someone to the polls. On the other hand, if I’m home all day in Ohio, I might have the time to mail in that ballot I’ve had sitting on the dresser.

Now we wait. It is temping to think that politics will be the last thing on people’s minds in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but that’s as unrealistic as thinking if I step outside right now I won’t get wet.