Sandy, the monster hurricane hurtling up the east coast of the United States, has brought all other news — including most political coverage — to a standstill. On MSNBC’s NOW with Alex Wagner today, Wagner asked the panel whether the storm represents the virtual end of the presidential campaign, given its impact on early vote and campaigning by both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. So what impact could Sandy have on American politics?
Here are five ways the storm could make itself felt in American politics.
1. Obama is president, and he gets to show it
President Obama made a brief statement Tuesday, calling on Americans to heed the warnings of the nation’s governors to evacuate, or otherwise prepare for the storm. Obama responded to a reporter’s question about how the storm would impact the campaign by saying he’s not worried about the election right now — it will take care of itself. That moment was a reminder that Obama is the nation’s leader, and there’s only one. In doing his job, he embodies the presidency and the role of commander in chief in a way his challenger simply cannot. If the federal disaster response is solid, it can only help the incumbent. If it’s not — well, just ask George W. Bush, about whom it was said, “9/11 changed everything. (Hurricane) Katrina changed it back.”
2. Sandy moves Romney off the stage
Not only will Mitt Romney receive less press coverage because of Sandy, when he does get under the Klieg lights, he has to be careful not to be seen to be politicizing the storm. And the storm coverage could crowd out the Romney anti-Obama message, while simultaneously making it appear petty. Romney can do himself some good by showing personal empathy to storm victims, or otherwise demonstrating an interest in charity, but good photo-ops are likely all he can really manage until the storm subsides. By the way, the storm could also prevent the emergence of another outside event that could alter the media narrative or be seized upon by Romney to hurt the president, like a jobs report that’s less than favorable, for example (or one that is favorable and becomes the latest object of conspiracy theorizing by Romney supporters…)
3. So you think you don’t need government?
The Republican Party is running in many ways against government itself — and especially the federal government (that’s not exactly new — the late President Ronald Reagan famously said “the most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”) During the primaries, Romney actually suggested taking disaster response out of the hands of FEMA, and turning it over to the states or even to private business. The Romney camp is back-tracking (some would say “flip-flopping” on that now, saying as president, the former Massachusetts governor wouldn’t abolish FEMA after all. But his primary stance, and the idea of cutting government resources for things like disaster response, which House Republicans including Romney’s running-mate, Paul Ryan favor — will get more scrutiny in the wake of a very real need for federal response. Meanwhile, there’s nothing like a storm to remind people that sometimes, the government really is here to help — a core Democratic argument.
4. Early voting last week really, really matters
Ironically, had Republicans in Florida not shortened the early voting period, “souls to the polls” Sunday in the sunshine state would have been next week, rather than this past weekend. Why does that matter? By forcing Democrats and black churches to mobilize their voters earlier, Republicans inadvertently allowed Democrats in that crucial swing state to run up an early vote advantage, and to convert voters who might have waited until Election Day, or until this week, when the storm could dampen voter turnout up and down the east coast. Indeed, according to data released by Florida Democrats today, the Ds have so far out-performed the Rs, with 793,364 ballots cast (41 percent) versus 774,964 ballots (41 percent), and another 310,481 voters have cast ballots as “no party affiliated.” That includes crucial absentee ballots, where Republicans have in past years completely dominated, but where Democrats have closed the absentee ballot request gap by a whopping 87 percent, and the share of ballots turned in by 50 percent versus 2008. According to the campaign, “at this point in 2008, Republicans lead vote by mail by 246,619 requests, but today they only have a 40,135 lead.”