The Washington Post

The politics of Sandy

As work and school are canceled today, and Sandy has already zapped our power, there is a lot of time to speculate on the possible political implications of 50 million Americans being really angry right before they go to the polls. Natural disasters often follow a pattern: Hype, consequences of actual event, intense media focus on the worst, relief among many that it wasn’t worse for them, some initial good cheer and even joy at a routine interrupted — how many babies named Sandy may be conceived in the next 72 hours, how many families rediscovering card games, children reading by candle light, friends acting naughty on an unexpected and very long weekend? But then, if the power stays out or the basement floods, or the street is closed from flooding or downed trees, it gets old in a hurry, and many people move from relief through stoicism to anger.

This last stage is where it gets interesting for our politics. Historically, I would guess that natural disasters have generally hurt more political careers than they have helped. There are exceptions: Herbert Hoover, when he was Secretary of Commerce, traveled to the terrible Mississippi flood of 1927 and received constant national attention and acclaim for his relief efforts, propelling him to the the presidency in the 1928 election. (For a fascinating account of the 1927 flood, I recommend John M. Barry’s book, “Rising Tide,” one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read.) But mostly, we remember the failures, Brownie and Bush, some hapless mayor, like John Lindsay in 1969, who can’t get the snow cleared for days.

But today, we have something unprecedented: a life-threatening, natural disaster with an historic swath eight days before a presidential election. What does it mean for Mitt Romney and President Obama? Most importantly, it disrupts their travel and their organizing efforts at perhaps the campaign’s most critical moment. These are the days when the campaigns are making their final push to get their voters to the polls, and a candidate’s physical absence hurts those efforts. Impact on the candidacies? Equal.

If the storm does its predicted damage, the president, in particular, may be in disaster relief mode until the weekend. Hard for him to be at rallies in Iowa or Colorado, when wide areas of the East Coast are flooded, without power and/or buried under snow. Advantage? Hard to say. Obama gets to look presidential, but the longer it drags on, the more it becomes clear that there is only so much he can do. The impact of declaring disaster emergencies, and deploying FEMA and federal aid, will not be visible to most people. Romney remains limited in his travel schedule as well, and with the exception of Virginia and maybe eastern Ohio, there are few states impacted that are in play for him. So touring a disaster zone, for example, in lower Manhattan is probably not his best use of time. But if the storm’s aftermath of inconvenience drags on, it may favor Romney as people tend to associate their frustration with an ineffective government response.

Anyway, enough politics. You have books to read, movies to watch, weather Web sites to peruse, work memos to write. Here’s hoping you are all safe and that the storm treats us more gently than the forecast.


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