Disastrous storms can have impact on race for president
October 30, 2012 12:00 PM
Dann Cuellar/6abc Action News
The Inlet section of Atlantic City, N.J., floods as Hurricane Sandy makes its approach Monday.
By Mackenzie Carpenter and Tracie Mauriello Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The presidential campaign was put on hold Monday as 50 million people faced Hurricane Sandy, a storm of historic proportions -- not just in potential damage but for its possible impact on the race for the White House.
Even as both candidates canceled all public events for today, the presidential contest continued, albeit subtly. With the election one week from today, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, faced the prospect that this looming natural disaster might either wreck a political future or give an unexpected boost.
"What is always true, in war and in peace, in times of crisis, is that the president is the president and the challenger is not," said Andrew Reeves, an assistant professor at Boston University, co-author on a study of how extreme weather can impact voter attitudes.
While both campaigns posted links to emergency relief efforts on their websites and social media pages, and suspended email fundraising messages to supporters in states expected to be in the storm's path, one candidate had the White House as a backdrop, while the other had a high school gym in Ohio.
"Mr. Romney is in a tough spot," said Mr. Reeves. "He has to walk this balance, and he's trying, but he's sort of powerless to do anything."
Mr. Obama might seem to have the advantage, given his ability to marshal all the tools of the presidency to show leadership: On Monday, the White House Flickr photostream page had pictures of him somberly conferring with aides about Hurricane Sandy in the Oval Office and with governors of states affected at a teleconference in the Situation Room.
He may very well have been thinking of President Bill Clinton, who wrote in his 2004 memoir, ''[V]oters don't choose a president based on how he'll handle disasters, but if they're faced with one, it quickly becomes the most important issue of their lives."
Then again, he may have been summoning up the specter of the "Heckuva job, Brownie" debacle, said Mr. Reeves. President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina -- and his compliments to FEMA head Michael Brown, a political appointee, who was later fired -- have become a cautionary tale for any public official.
Mr. Reeves, along with Carnegie Mellon University professor John Gasper, co-authored a recent study that found that the effects of extreme weather, and botched relief efforts, can be seen at the ballot box.
"Voters did, in fact, punish both governors and presidents for damage caused by natural disasters," but that effect was calibrated by the amount of aid they received.
"Don't think public officials don't know this," said Mr. Reeves.
While the actual damage caused by a storm is the single-biggest predictor for disaster aid, being in a battleground state is the second-largest predictor of whether a state will get aid, and how much, according to the study.
Still, Hurricane Sandy's political outcome is far from clear.
"A storm of this size and this magnitude -- this is a national event, a unique category," Mr. Reeves said. "It's a shared community experience about witnessing the destructive power of nature, and no matter where you are you can relate to and feel compassion for the people going through that sort of thing."
In the annals of public officials as heroes or villains during natural disasters, there are Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., who actually rescued people trapped in a 2010 blizzard, and Mayor Marion Barry, of Washington, D.C., who was in Pasadena, Calif., watching a Super Bowl game during a snowstorm in 1987. And New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who got plenty of flak for his response to the blizzard of 2010, has been all over the airwaves, speaking Spanish, closing the subways in the face of superstorm Sandy.
There have been six U.S. hurricanes in November since records began being kept, but none has hit this close to an election or at a time when so many people are voting early, said Michael Federici, chairman of the political science department at Mercyhurst College.
"Weather is a bigger factor now than it used to be because of all the early voting going on in Virginia, Ohio and elsewhere. The weather might make some people more likely to vote early because they are worried about it, but the reverse is also true: It might keep others from voting because they are worried about it."
So could a storm that takes place this Tuesday depress turnout next Tuesday?
The Northeast leans Democratic, and if fewer voters turn out, lower turnout could reduce Mr. Obama's national popular vote without affecting his Electoral College votes, increasing the chances for one candidate to win the popular vote while the other takes a trumping electoral college majority.
On the other hand, if two swing states, Virginia and Ohio, are affected by the storm, "it could help the president if there is a lot of damage and he makes federal money available and travels around to release money and show sympathy. It will make him look presidential and he'll be perceived as a leader," said Mr. Federici.
If people in the Northeast are still without power Nov. 6, though, Mr. Obama will have a real problem on his hands.
Neither candidate wants to be seen playing politics with this hurricane.
Asked by a reporter Monday if he was worried about the storm's impact on his campaign, the president said, "I'm worried about the impact on families and I'm worried about the impact on our first responders. The election will take care of itself next week."
And on Mr. Obama's campaign's website, in a message signed "Barack," the president urged supporters in the path of the storm to listen to state and local authorities about where and how to take shelter and stay safe.
On Mr. Romney's website, the Republican nominee noted that "Ann and I are keeping the people in Hurricane Sandy's path in our thoughts and prayers," asking supporters to look out for neighbors, especially the elderly, consider contributing to their local Red Cross relief organization, and stressing unity.
"The incumbent always has the Rose Garden effect," said Kiron Skinner, a Romney foreign policy adviser and CMU professor. "There's no way the challenger can stand in the Rose Garden and make a big statement about where the country is headed in a time of crisis, but Gov. Romney has been showing himself to be very presidential, very statesmanlike."
Mr. Romney won't be blamed for any botched efforts at relieving the misery of millions, but he won't get much credit for any successes either, at least on a large scale.
Mr. Romney's campaign bus in Virginia was dispatched to deliver supplies to local relief organizations, and supporters removed yard signs that could become dangerous projectiles in a high wind. He might also visit New Jersey later this week and tour damage with a top ally, Republican Gov. Chris Christie -- just as he toured Louisiana after Hurricane Isaac cut short the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Then, too, if the Federal Emergency Management Agency does a better job this time, Mr. Romney may come under fire from the Obama campaign for saying in the debates that he would dismantle FEMA.
"It's a false controversy," Ms. Skinner said. "His position is that the states have so much responsibility in crises like this."
The storm changes the ground game, but the campaign still happens, she said. "Even if certain appearances have to be canceled by the candidates, they can continue to be in touch with the voters through all kinds of media. That isn't going to stop."
If there is one silver lining amid all these storm clouds, it is this: "We may see a reduction in the number of polls issued over the coming days," wrote Nate Silver Monday at FiveThirtyEight, a political statistics blog for The New York Times.
Potentially 15 million Americans -- one-twentieth of the country's population -- "are essentially off-limits to pollsters because of the hurricane," Mr. Silver wrote before signing off (he lives in New York City), "because they are without power, displaced from their homes or otherwise are well-adjusted human beings who are more interested in looking after their families than in answering a political survey."