Late on Monday, the 29th of October, the center of Hurricane Sandy came ashore in New Jersey. It was an unusual mixture of storms, starting out as a tropical hurricane but become an extra-tropical hurricane due to mixing in with colder air. Whatever its meteorological classification, it was an unusual and dangerous storm, with wind, storm surge, rain, and snow. The complete economic impact of the storm is yet to be seen.
However, I will concentrate on just one aspect: what impact it will have on the 2012 Elections, with an emphasis on the presidential election. Although it might be seen as crass, I think that it is a question that needs to be addressed.
Most commentary I have read, and my own knowledge of past catastrophes and elections, have focused on three topics:
- Voting difficulties due to closed polling places: if there is no electricity, or if polling places are difficult to reach due to unusable roads, or if the voters themselves are too busy with emergency repairs, some areas could see much lower turnout. The remnants of Hurricane Sandy are currently dissipating, and the election is still a week away, so the infrastructure situation is
looking like it will be under control by that point. If difficulty in voting is a problem, it will probably be on the voter's end, not the polling end. The psychology of voters one week from now will be hard to guess, but there will probably be many people who don't feel like they have the time or energy to vote.
However, while disenfranchisement for any reason is bad, it might not change who wins the election. Most of the states that are most directly effected (such as New York, New Jersey, Maryland) are solid enough that slight changes in their vote won't change their electoral college positions. The states that are swing states, such as Ohio, Virginia and New Hampshire, are not going to receive the full brunt of the storm. And what impact the storm does have on voting on them will probably balance out across the state, not changing the overall composition of the electorate.
- A truce in campaigning: in a time of natural disaster, much of the usual political vocabulary would be extremely crass. It is a time for "positive" thoughts, and launching attacks against your opponent would look extremely insensitive. Also, since much of the campaigning would take place in areas that are disaster-stricken, simple logistics prohibit it. While this does make a difference, it might not make much of one: by this point, most voters have already made their minds up about who they are voting for, or have already voted. A slight change in the tempo of the campaign, and shuffling of rallies is probably not going to change things that much. And again, since this affects both sides equally, it might not have any net effect.
- The opportunity for the incumbent President to look "presidential": This is called the rally around the flag phenomenon, the fact that in times of national crisis, the President is viewed as less of a partisan figure, and more as a patriotic figure. Of course, he can also be blamed for things going wrong. So far, it seems that President Obama has at least avoided any gigantic missteps with response to Hurricane Sandy. This might be the only item on this list that actually moves the race, but even that is speculation.
Overall, I would say Hurricane Sandy's impact on the presidential race is probably going to be slight. But since it is a close race, and the weather has still not finished, there is a good chance that it could have a large impact.
Further down the ticket, especially in races that are confined to small geographical areas, there is a good chance that the hurricane will make all the difference. Somewhere a mayor of a small town in New York, or a legislator in New Hampshire, might be defeated because of the hurricane. But that requires a greater knowledge of local circumstances than I have.
So while Sandy is going to have an impact on the upcoming election, I doubt it will be a "game changer". But many things can happen in one week!