Elena Kadvany: Point
In 1972, the political term “October surprise” was coined. Twelve days before the presidential election between former president Richard Nixon and then-Sen. George McGovern, then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger announced that “peace was at hand” in Vietnam, changing the game on a crucial election issue that might have swayed many voters’ decisions and changed the outcome of the election.
Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast eight days before Election Day, is this year’s “October surprise.” The storm irreversibly changed the path of the election in two ways: first, by putting thousands of possible voters out of commission for days and second, by showcasing an example of President Barack Obama’s unwavering leadership, possibly securing more votes in his favor.
Out of the states that were significantly hit by Hurricane Sandy, four — Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania — are major swing states. If voter turnout decreases because of the storm, the outcome of these states could be quite different from predictions made pre-Sandy. Similarly, in 2004, a study found that Al Gore lost an estimated 2.8 million votes to former president George W. Bush in certain areas because of drought or excessive rain, according to the political magazine Mother Jones.
Close races for this election might become even closer if more people can’t get their votes out. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney clearly recognizes this — he sent supplies not to New York and New Jersey, the areas most devastated by the hurricane, but instead to the four swing states where a win in his favor could make or break the election.
And while Romney not so subtly campaigned through such supply efforts, Obama dropped the campaign facade and reverted back to the man we put confidently into office four years ago. He sent aid to the entire Northeast. He told governors to call him directly if they had any trouble with bureaucratic red tape. He visited the hardest hit areas of New Jersey with Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday.
And voters noticed. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that eight in 10 likely voters believe Obama has done an “excellent” job dealing with the storm. The same poll also revealed that two-thirds of Romney supporters say that Obama is doing well in his response to the hurricane and that 70 percent of pollers who say Obama is doing a poor job of handling the presidency believe the opposite in his handling of the storm.
This is incredibly telling. This is not Obama giving a written-out, rehearsed speech on why he deserves Americans’ votes. This is, as the political term goes, a surprise that gives voters an opportunity to see the president in action outside of debates and campaign events. For voters that might have been on the fence about the candidates, Hurricane Sandy might just be the tipping point that convinces them to vote for Obama.
Though both parties are playing it down, there is no escaping the fact that an event of this magnitude, this close to election day will have an impact on the election, and most likely in Obama’s favor.
As AP journalist Ben Feller wrote on the Huffington Post on Wednesday, “in a political sense — and politics are absolutely part of this – Obama has a remarkable last-minute chance to campaign for his job just by doing his job.”
The president has done that job extremely well, and there is no doubt that voters will take that into account when they go to the polls come Nov. 6.
Burke Gibson: Counterpoint
Striking just eight days before Election Day, Hurricane Sandy effectively stole the spotlight from the presidential election for a week. As a result, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have had to contend with a real-life issue during a critical stage of their campaigns, offering Americans a taste of their presidential potential for the next four years. But how much can we really learn from their responses to the hurricane?
As tragic and significant as Sandy has been, it’s just one incident, and it’s a storm. The ability of a president isn’t based on his or her skill in dealing with hurricanes. Obama has been very successful in providing relief thus far, but he’s just doing his job.
Though voters’ abilities to participate might be affected by hurricane damage in some states, the vast majority of voters will base their decision on the issues that have already been discussed throughout the campaign.
This is not to say that Sandy will have zero impact on the election. According to The Washington Post, reports from swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, indicate they will have major trouble in having all the polls open by Election Day. Hurricane Sandy, however, is non-partisan. Both sides will have issues voting, so though turnout for the popular vote might suffer, the results of the election will most likely be unchanged.
But what about those who see Obama’s quick response as an example of his ability to lead? Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama, claiming that Obama’s policy regarding climate change is more relevant to a world where extreme natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy can happen. And according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, eight in 10 likely voters considered Obama’s response to the storm “excellent” — even staunch Republicans are recognizing that Obama has handled the storm well.
Acknowledging a job well done, however, is not the same as pledging support. A Republican who prioritizes the economy or foreign policy will not change his vote over a natural disaster. The candidates’ campaigns have been going on for months, so there is no shortage of information to help voters make their decisions. And though the impact of Sandy might cause a push for better environmental policies, the United States is dealing with a $16 trillion deficit, unrest in the Middle East and plenty of other pressing issues. There’s no way climate change will become central to the candidates’ platforms any time soon.
It’s also important to note that Obama isn’t going above and beyond the call of duty in his response. He’s the current president, and the fact that he didn’t botch the situation like former president George W. Bush did with Hurricane Katrina just means he fulfilled his job requirements. As Obama proved when he attended a fundraiser in Nevada right after the Benghazi attacks, he is just as focused — if not more — on the election as he is on saving human lives. Romney donated relief to several swing states, and though he hasn’t directly donated to New York, he has donated to a Red Cross warehouse in nearby New Jersey. Obama shouldn’t be given more credit than Romney based on the magnitude of his response; he is, after all, the incumbent.
Given the extent of the damage Hurricane Sandy has caused, we will certainly be having an unconventional election this year. Voters’ tendencies, however, are complex. Though it might seem as if the storm has given Obama a chance to flex his presidential power right before the election, the president-elect will be decided based on months of prior campaigning.