Hurricane Sandy blew Obama and Romney off course, but it's the President who has the momentum just days ahead of the election

The political impact of natural disasters can change a nation's history

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Ten years ago, as Europe’s summer holidays drew to a close, the south and east of Germany were struck by catastrophic floods. The then Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, rushed home, pulled on his wellies and had the cameras follow him around the devastated areas. He empathised with ruined shopkeepers, rallied rescue teams and congratulated lines of young sandbagging volunteers. It was the sort of thing a national leader is supposed to do.

But there was more to it than this. Germany was less than a month away from a general election that Schröder, the Social Democrat, looked set to lose. In the few extra days that it took his challenger, Edmund Stoiber, to hunt down a pair of wellies and stride out towards the swirling waters – some of which had inundated homes not that far from his Bavarian front door – Schröder’s political nous and common touch had secured his victory. 

It is worth noting that Stoiber’s defeat opened the way for Angela Merkel to stand for the Chancellorship five years later, and the rest is history – history whose course may well have been changed by the coincidence of a natural disaster and an election. Extreme weather, as Americans have learnt over the past week, is one of the few eventualities capable of up-ending the probabilities of a modern election. The candidates may have spent a fortune on advertising, commissioned the most insightful of pollsters and stumped the swing states until they are hoarse, but when a late-season hurricane strikes, the best-laid plans risk going to waste.

Voyeurs

Part of the fascination of Hurricane Sandy for us voyeurs watching from the safety of the other side of the Atlantic was the pictures of Manhattan that so resembled scenes from a disaster movie. But it was the proximity of the presidential election, just a week away, that gave the whole the feel of a rip-roaring cross between Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Such juxtapositions do not happen often – indeed, it was the first time anyone could remember that a natural disaster came so close to an election, to the point where some even hazarded that the poll could be postponed.

With the New York Stock Exchange now reopened, clean-up operations well under way, and the candidates back on the campaign trail, the election timetable will clearly be kept. But the political calculus has changed. What is harder to gauge than it was a decade ago in Germany is exactly how, and in whose favour.

The obvious conclusion is that a natural disaster offers an opportunity for the incumbent to lose. Not only this, but any US politician cannot but have a detailed template in his mind of how not to do it. George Bush himself recognised with hindsight that his late and remote response to Hurricane Katrina was “a huge mistake”. Had New Orleans been devastated not in 2005, but a year earlier, on the eve of the 2004 election, the odds must be that the Republican would have been a one-term president and John Kerry might now be approaching the end of his second term. Not for the first time, Bush was lucky.

So far, Obama has played the hand well that chance dealt him. The first criticism from the Republican camp was that in suspending his campaign and returning to Washington when he did, he was overreacting. In the light of Katrina, that hardly counts as a criticism. The extent to which Obama was engaged and exercising his power as President brought compliments from the New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and a lavish tribute from Chris Christie, Governor of the worst-afflicted state, New Jersey – both Republicans.

It hardly matters – for this election – whether Christie was speaking with half an eye to the Republican nomination in four years’ time; his words were worth a good amount of expensive television advertising to the Obama camp. And in his prompt visits to the Red Cross headquarters and then to the New Jersey coast, Obama consistently struck the right note. If the relief effort were to stall and parts of New York City are still without electricity on election day, doubts might be voiced about the President’s effectiveness. In the greater scheme of things, though, it would still be early days. The timing has been good to   Obama. With no access to any levers of power, Romney could do little more than wait solemnly to resume his campaign.

Sliver of hope 

At worst, Obama’s response has done his re-election prospects no harm. At best, he is now cruising to victory in what had become, between the first televised debate and Hurricane Sandy, an unexpectedly close contest. Romney’s demeanour over the past week suggests strongly that he fears the game is up. He could not know at the time, but he had hardly helped himself by proposing during the primaries that Fema – the disasters agency that failed New Orleans so dismally – should be privatised. Executing a belated U-turn this week, he promised continued funding for Fema, but the damage had been done.    

This, though, is where there could yet be a sliver of hope for Romney. The destruction wrought by Sandy feeds into the old debate between Democrats and Republicans about the appropriate role and size of the state. It was a theme the candidates scrapped over during their generally high-calibre TV debates, and the way the votes break down on this one issue could well decide this election. As Obama plays the responsible government card in the few campaign days that remain, Romney could argue that private money, individual self-reliance, and the can-do approach that is so much an American hallmark will contribute quite as much to the recovery.

This is Romney’s way back into the contest. It may also explain why the first post-storm polls seem to have moved in different directions in different states, depending on the appetite for government intervention. Still, his triumph in the first debate now seems far in the past, and it is Obama whose campaign feels more vigorous. If he is comfortably re-elected on Tuesday, it will be at least in part because the fickle weather gods came out on his side.

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