Hurricane or “Superstorm” Sandy (weirdly nicknamed Frankenstorm by some) is likely to go down in history as the costliest storm of all time. That’s because it hit the heavily populated New Jersey coast, with a major impact on New York city. Four days after the storm made landfall parts of lower Manhattan are still without power. The storm came ashore late Monday and while it passed quickly, the damage was immense.
Sea water poured into the New York subway system, sharks were seen swimming through the flooded streets of Atlantic City, scores of people died, and power outages affected over 8 million. In Virginia and West Virginia blizzard conditions prevailed. This was no normal storm, it was a category one hurricane meeting up with a storm system crossing the northern US and converging in a freak event, exactly one week before a closely contested US election.
Coming as it did at the start of the last week of intense partisan campaigning, it’s natural that people glance away from the direct impact and ask “what does this mean for the election?”
Chris Christie, Republican Governor of New Jersey who gave the keynote address at the GOP convention in Tampa last August, is having none of that, explicitly saying “I don’t give a damn about the election.” He’s heaped praise on President Obama for cutting through the red tape, surveyed the devastation with the President, asserting that when his state is suffering the worst disaster in its history politics doesn’t matter.
For Christie, this is real. You could tell in his speech that he is shaken a level of destruction that is both massive and impossible to heal quickly. Suddenly it’s more important to get aide to those suffering and assure a quick response than to worry about who will win next Tuesday. Many Republicans are incensed. One strategist fumed that Christie should have dismissed Obama’s efforts by saying “he’s doing what any President would do.” Rush Limbaugh called Christie Obama’s “Greek column” and chastised him for welcoming the President when Mayor Bloomberg would not. The partisans are in the middle of a war, to them Christie has committed an act of betrayal.
Most surreal was the criticism coming from the chastized FEMA head of the Bush years, who is widely seen as failing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He said Obama acted too quickly in response to Sandy. I had to make sure the story was real, I thought it must be from The Onion. Yes, better to wait and let people really need help before getting involved!
Apparently he was trying to tie it to failed attempts by Republicans to stir up a scandal around the Benghazi attacks in September. Not only do Bush era officials Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice defend the Administration, undercutting Republican attacks, but really? He brings that up in the wake of a major hurricane? Brownie and disaster go together!
But the storm does have an impact on the election, at least in terms of the campaigning. It’s unlikely to shape the outcome, but it puts Governor Romney in the awkward position of not wanting to seem insensitive to the plight of the victims but needing to attack a President who appears to be pulling ahead in a tightly fought race. Campaign events are replaced by hurricane relief efforts, with the Romney campaign purchasing supplies to assure the visuals are right in case his supporters neglect to bring contributions along. Romney surrogates launch vicious attacks while the governor tries to soften his rhetoric. Awkward, but what else can he do?
Both campaigns are awash with so much money that they’re buying commercials everywhere; for the first time the last week isn’t about where to invest precious resources. At least the commercials don’t have to fake wanting to tone down partisanship. But what impact will the storm have on the election?
1. News coverage. Normally the two competing “closing arguments” of the candidates would be dominating the news. From Monday to Wednesday the campaign seemed almost invisible as the focus was on the devastation caused by Sandy. This will change, but given that Romney needs to gain some traction before next Tuesday, it’s made his job more difficult. Moreover the photos and news of Obama touring the region and by all accounts leading a successful response can only enhance his reputation.
2. Obama’s Campaign. President Obama had to cancel a number of campaign appearances, something his staff and volunteers in the swing states no doubt regret. He is the number one weapon in firing up the faithful and urging them to turn out with enthusiasm on election day. Yet I don’t think this will hurt his campaign. Late rallies have a limited impact, and hey – he’s got Bill Clinton working the campaign trail.
3. Climate Change: How the campaigns can ignore this issue given the drama of this storm hitting as it did when it did is beyond me. After the election look for a renewed push for action on global warming.
4. FEMA is good! In the primary campaign Governor Romney suggested FEMA be replaced by state efforts or even the private sector. Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget envisioned massive cuts for the emergency response agency. Now both are back peddling – reality trumps political posturing. Big government is sometimes absolutely essential!
Campaigns are games, contests in which professionals craft messages and try to manipulate the voters in the same way McDonalds tries to manipulate potential customers. Those caught up in the game read reality through the lens of their particular partisan preference. Ultimately, though, reality bites. Reality is more than soundbites, more than gaffes, more even than who’s economic plan makes more sense.
If Obama wins Republicans may blame Sandy, saying their man had momentum but the weird last week stifled his progress. If Romney wins Democrats may claim that if Obama had been able to campaign the last week he’d have energized more voters to turn around swing states. Neither will be true, but after the fact narratives are often self-serving. But win or lose, both President Obama and Governor Christie made the right choice: they put their jobs ahead of politics. In a time of crisis, that’s the right thing to do.