As the East Coast begins to deal with the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy, President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney face a dilemma: how to run for office without appearing insensitive to the damage caused by the superstorm.
Had Sandy hit back in August, the decision would be simple: suspend the campaign for a few days, maybe do some light fundraising, pull attack ads off the air. But with just one week until election day, the two presidential campaigns can’t afford to simply close up shop. It may seem gauche to worry about campaigning, given the damage done to the mid-Atlantic states, but with the race very tight, the next week could well determine who will be president for the next four years.
Sandy represents a potential game-changer for both campaigns. Its impact may well be felt, not just by those in the affected areas, but on the politics of the next four years.
For Obama, a Test of Leadership
Barack Obama will face a significant test over the next week. Can his administration effectively manage the post-hurricane clean-up? Can it help get power restored, transit up and running? Can it get water and food to those that need it, get hospitals that had to close due to power outages back up and running? In short, can FEMA manage this crisis effectively?
It can be argued that disasters like Sandy are precisely why we have a federal government. With damage in New Jersey and New York that will certainly run into the tens of billions of dollars, it takes the resources of the whole country, working together, to help get the affected region back on its feet.
The immediate impact of Sandy on polling will be unclear; there is some evidence that people vote more conservatively during bad weather, but there’s also likely to be a short-term rally ’round the flag effect benefiting the administration. If the recovery effort goes reasonably smoothly, it’s likely Sandy will prove a net positive for the president.
The danger for Obama is that the recovery effort does not go smoothly. The lackluster initial response to Hurricane Katrina caused serious damage to the approval ratings for President George W. Bush, damage that he couldn’t repair during his time in office. Had Katrina happened in October of 2004, rather than August of 2005, it’s likely that John Kerry would have won the election.
Obama’s political fortunes thus perfectly align with his duties as president. For Obama, nothing is more important than making sure recovery efforts come of without a hitch. So far, Obama has received plaudits for his response. New Jersey Gov. and Romney surrogate Chris Christie has so far praised Obama, saying, “The cooperation has been great with FEMA here on the ground and the cooperation from the president of the United States has been outstanding. He deserves great credit.” Still, that praise could quickly turn if the Obama administration mismanages the recovery.
For Romney, a Potential Minefield
Mitt Romney is at a disadvantage on two fronts. First, there’s not anything direct that he can do to help. Unlike Obama, who has the duty to oversee the executive branch, Romney is just a citizen, with no more power to direct recovery efforts than you or me.
This is a problem for Romney, because Obama has duties that will put him front-and-center over the next few days, and it will be hard for Romney to assail him. Unless there is a serious breakdown in recovery efforts, Romney will be forced to cheer on the Obama administration, because carping will appear decidedly un-American.
Romney has tried thus far to try to act like a president, phoning New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, both Republicans, to check on things. However, given that this is a serious crisis, Romney’s calls were seen by many as unhelpful at best.
Romney is also hurt more than Obama by the general view that campaigning too hard at this moment would be a faux pas. While national horserace polls are neck-and-neck, the electoral college math is much more friendly to Barack Obama. Romney must flip one or more of the states where Obama currently holds a narrow lead, especially Ohio.
That puts Romney in the delicate position of trying to campaign without appearing to campaign. Romney has officially canceled campaign events for Tuesday, but he is going to be holding a “storm relief event” in the Buckeye state that will feature former NASCAR great Richard Petty and country music singer Randy Owen –it’s basically just his regularly scheduled campaign event renamed to make it seem like he’s not campaigning. Indeed, it’s been noted that Romney is even re-running his campaign video at the event. Romney is running a real risk of appearing too partisan, but on the other hand, he probably can’t afford to take the day off.
Romney’s decision to press forward with campaigning carries a risk. If he’s seen as being insensitive to what’s going on out east, he could do himself more damage than any amount of campaigning could repair.
Surrogates and Ads Could Be Key
For both campaigns, it will fall to surrogates to make up some of the missed campaign time over the next week. Former President Bill Clinton will be going ahead with planned events in Minnesota, and GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan will campaign throughout his home state of Wisconsin.
For both Obama and Romney, surrogates represent a possible way to campaign over the next few days. For Obama, it allows the campaign to continue while he oversees emergency operations; for Romney, it allows others to take shots at the Obama administration, leaving him available to call for unity.
The other major impact Sandy could have is on advertising. While he has tried to walk it back, Romney has called for the elimination of FEMA, and joked during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention that Obama had “promised to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”
With rising oceans devastating much of the northeast, more than a few voters could be persuaded that slowing the rise of the oceans would, in fact, help them and their families.
With one week to go in the election, the impact of Sandy on the vote could be dramatic — or it could be minor. Much will depend on how both campaigns manage the next week, and most importantly, much will depend on how well the current president does his job. And that is as it should be.
Image Credit: New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority