Hurricane Sandy has not only had a devastating effect on the US-east coast, but also caused quite some stir in the presidential race. Yesterday, as many as four journalists from a variety of radio stations and newspapers wanted me to comment on the effect Sandy is going to have on the election on November 6. If one candidate will be able to profit from the situation it is, in my opinion, Barak Obama.
In a situation like this, it is clear, what the president has to do: He has to quit campaigning – no matter how close the election is – and switch into crisis mode. He has to grant access to emergency funds and support and cooperate fully with the local authorities. He has to show genuine sympathy for the affected people and mark presence at the site of the catastrophe. If a president does all this (and does it well), a disaster like hurricane Sandy, despite its tragedy, is very likely to help a great deal rather than hurt him and his bid for re-election.
Remember for example the 2002 elections in Germany. Gerhard Schröder, incumbent chancellor at the time, was dragging behind in polls and only few effectively believed in his re-election. When floods of unprecedented magnitude caused destruction and devastation in Eastern Germany, Schröder effectively staged himself as “chancellor in rubber boots” and got to show the voters that he was, indeed fit to deal with any crisis at hand – and got re-elected.
On the other hand, there was President George W. Bush and his mishandling of hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush’s administration was completely taken by surprise by the events unfolding after the storm hit the Golf Coast and while the people there where struggling to hold on to life and possessions, the president himself was on vacation. It was only a few days later, before Bush chose to actually interrupt his holiday and react to the catastrophe by conducting a flight over the destroyed areas. Many thought afterwards that this response was not sufficient.
At the moment, Obama clearly follows the example of Gerhard Schröder. Through his actions he even managed to gain enthusiastic praise by republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. On top of that, Sandy effectively shifts the focus away from the economy which is not something Romney is not happy about. Finally, decency calls for Romney to also quit campaigning for a few days and soften his tone considerably. While Obama gets to show himself as the leader of the nation, Romney has to keep a low profile in the most crucial days before the election. Romney has already once made the mistake of appearing to try and play politics when the nation was mourning the loss of lives in Libya – this is something that is incredibly unpopular with swing voters.
I imagine that, as a result of his behaviour in dealing with the hurricane, Obama will erase Romney’s slight momentary lead in the national polls. It also strikes me as likely that Obama will further improve his standing in the swing states where he already is the frontrunner, even though by a razor thin margin. When it comes to the swing states every single vote counts at this moment!