Washington: The mighty Sandy hit the American north-east with all the fury of a Frankenstorm, its genes unclear, its evolution possibly a result of innumerable blows man has dealt nature, its statistics being talked of in millennial terms.
Sandy also has blown right into the US presidential election, showering a storm-sized element of volatility into an extremely close race and robbing three campaigning days from Barack Obama’s schedule. He rushed from Florida to Washington to oversee preparation and ensure that his bureaucracy didn’t have a Katrina problem, the 2005 hurricane that forever stamped “callous inefficiency” on the Bush Administration.
Will Mother Nature swing the vote this time? Clearly, Obama’s strategists have wagered their candidate giving a command performance as concerned-in-chief, whipping government agencies into action is a political advantage, and better than addressing rallies away from the eye of the storm. Obama acted swiftly to send help, release federal funds and personally called governors of the states affected. So far so good.
But Sandy could also be the ultimate “October surprise” and its impact could push the vote either way although more likely against Obama. All Mitt Romney has to do is not look opportunistic as he did when terrorists attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and he tried to score some political points. As Sandy approached Romney this time made sure to appear charitable and ask his supporters to lend a hand. He promptly sent a bus to transport supplies to the affected areas. Of course, it was conveniently emblazoned with his name and campaign messages.
There is some evidence that voters blame whoever is in office for disasters, even natural ones. Any lingering feeling that help didn’t reach in time can adversely impact the incumbent. A serious drought has already affected much of middle America this year, affecting crops and livestock.
And now a monster storm disrupting life and wreaking havoc. Early voting has been suspended in the states hit by Sandy – bad news for the Democrats since the Obama campaign had made an extra effort on this front. Bad weather is generally seen as a negative for the Democrats and a positive for Republicans because the voter base for the latter is more committed. Given the “enthusiasm gap” among the faithful of the two parties, it is more likely that committed Republicans will turn out in greater numbers.
Then there are those Americans directly impacted by the storm who are likely to be busy getting their homes repaired or filling out insurance forms. If they are indifferent voters — turnout in the US is low and has hovered between 50 to 57% since the 1970s — they may just stay home to take care of business.
To say the race is tight would be an understatement. Most national polls show the two candidates in dead heat separated by two or three points at best. The Romney campaign says it has a narrow lead for the popular vote. The support for Romney and Obama has averaged around 48% — not a good sign for the incumbent unable to get comfortably above the 50% mark.
There is already talk the election might be contested in some states or the popular vote may go against the electoral vote in America’s complicated presidential election system. If the spectre of 2000 comes back to haunt the system when Al Gore lost by a very narrow margin to George W Bush and after a controversial intervention by the US Supreme Court, the country will be further polarised and in a more ugly manner.
Just five days before the vote the race is too close to call, partly because of the Obama campaign’s slightly arrogant, slightly complacent and overly confident methods. There is no good explanation about why his team didn’t think of laying out his vision for the next four years until just two weeks before voting day. And when they did, the programme had little sweep or flourish. This summer it seemed like this race was Obama’s to win. But somehow the plot was lost along the way.
Romney’s team has run a better, tighter campaign in the last phase by projecting their candidate as a moderate, slowly changing his earlier hard right positions on most social issues. Even as Romney lost the last two debates, the message his managers put out was that he had won. The narrative was set as political reporters faithfully gave equal space to those questionable claims. The biggest achievement for Romney has been to slowly gain acceptability among the undecided and independent voters as a possible president.
Will Obama pounce like a cat and capture another term or will he be consigned as a one-term but still historic first black president of the United States? Predictions are dangerous and there could be a November surprise.