With Hurricane Sandy descending on the East Coast of the United States at the peak of the US political establishment’s quadrennial frenzy, here’s a question: Will the deluge change the results of next week’s general election?
Short answer: It depends. Heavy rains alone won’t have a major affect, but widespread flooding and power losses for as long as week could change the situation, especially in a race as close as the contest between President Barack Obama and Republican standard bearer Mitt Romney. However the weather plays out, here’s what to watch for:
Will Obama look presidential? Disasters can be perilous or powerful for incumbents, as President George W. Bush demonstrated. His engagement with the 9/11 attacks solidified his political brand, but a late reaction to Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans tarnished it. That’s why Obama cancelled campaign events today and has been in the public eye receiving briefings and talking to citizens about what they need to do to stay safe. Political scientists suggest that these displays will offer rewards in the voting booth, but they can backfire if the impact of the disaster outstrips efforts to contain it. Romney, on the other hand, has less pressure to respond: As the previous Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, learned, reacting suddenly to bad news can backfire.
Will Romney’s momentum be diminished? When Obama left the campaign trail in Florida on Monday, Romney also put his campaign on hold. Both candidates are dialing back fundraising and asking their campaign workers to stay out of danger or to help with disaster preparedness. With just eight days left until the election, the candidate who’s behind—both campaigns will argue it’s the other one—might lose valuable time to gain steam. Romney, as the challenger, is probably worse off from this effect, especially if he drops out of the news while Obama’s leadership role is amplified.
Turnout is a concern. Rainy election days typically see fewer voters. Whatever the conditions on Nov. 6, if there is long-term damage to transportation and power infrastructure, that could hurt efforts to turn out voters. While most of the northeast is fairly solid Obama country, if fewer Democrats get to the polls in Virginia, New Hampshire, or Pennsylvania, that could hurt Obama’s chances.
Clouds of rain, fog of war. The hurricane could disrupt the efforts of pollsters tracking the election to reach voters by phone. That means that over the weekend and into early next week, we may have less information (or less reliable information) about the state of the race, which could result in bad media narratives for one of the candidates or affect voter expectations.
Nothing like a grey day for a conspiracy. Other people are in the field gathering data, too: The Department of Labor’s statistics bureau, which is scheduled to release the latest estimates of US employment on Friday. With government offices closing Monday and likely Tuesday, the Department didn’t rule out delaying the release. Political observers have become increasingly obsessed with the initial employment figures, which offer a seemingly tangible monthly assessment of the economy even though they are imprecise and will be revised twice more in coming months. After September’s unemployment report came in better than expected, no less of a figure than former GE CEO Jack Welch suggested there was tampering to affect the election. (He, of course, had no evidence.) Any irregularities this week will raise create a similar furor. Those poor statisticians.