By Elvin Lim
Everything is political at this time of the electoral calendar, so there is no use pretending that Hurricane Sandy will not have an effect on the presidential race.
President Obama has been given a new life line. Forced to take politics out of his campaign, he can take a break from defending his record for two days. When an incumbent president is forced by emergency events to stop talking politics, he always enjoys the glow emanating form the Oval Office. This is especially so for a candidate who appears, to some undecided voters, to have lost his luster from 2008, so campaigning has limited marginal returns for him anyway. It’s a difficult balancing act for an incumbent president campaigning to keep his job, because he must both be president and a politician. For two days, Barack Obama can be the latter by being the former.
If any candidate was enjoying any momentum in this last week of the campaign, it was probably Romney; and the news stories about Sandy have put a pause on that. Romney was out collecting canned food and donations, and he will benefit from the humanizing pictures of his campaign’s outreach. However, the challenger always does better when he can be in unfettered attack mode.
Voters now weigh the closing arguments of both campaigns. The Republicans have been successfully pushing a narrative of chaos, uncertainty, and an America in decline; this has hurt the president’s numbers. The critical question is if the Romney campaign managed to congeal this declension narrative with the post-Sandy chaos. This is a high-risk thing to attempt — not least because Governor Chris Christie has praised Barack Obama’s handling of this crisis and declared it out of bounds.
The Obama campaign also has an opportunity here. Americans have a love-hate relationship with the welfare state, but in war and emergency situations, most embrace the federal government without reservation. The Obama campaign likely recognize an opportunity here to showcase what the government can do for us, when individuals and states are incapacitated by acts of God.
One thing we do not yet know, however, is how Sandy may have affected early voting in Ohio. Obama has been up in almost every poll in the last month in Michigan (16), Nevada (6), Pennsylvania (20), and Wisconsin (10), which gives Obama 252 electoral college votes. If he wins Ohio’s 18, he wins; that is why Sandy’s impact matters. (If he wins Florida, he also wins.)
Assuming that Romney takes Colorado (9), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), and Florida (29), he will have 257 votes in the electoral college. If he takes New Hampshire (4) and/or Iowa (6) he still needs to peel one of the industrial mid-west states to his column. But if Romney takes Ohio, he wins. That is why there is a tremendous spin war going on about who is winning the early vote in Ohio.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.