Hello, October surprise. With winds at 90 mph.
Of course, Hurricane Sandy is technically not quite a surprise. Everyone knew it was coming.
But in the last lap of a presidential election, anything that throws the final campaign push out of gear is an October surprise.
A video tape from Osama bin Laden that put the focus back on the War on Terror was the October surprise in the 2004 match-up between George W Bush and John Kerry.
Obama had to face his own nasty surprise in 2008 when news surfaced about an aunt who was living in Boston without legal papers.
Campaigns don’t like surprises. They want everything to move like a well-oiled machine. But campaign directors propose and God disposes.
“Obviously we want unfettered access to the polls because we believe that the more people come out, the better we’re going to do, and so to the extent that it makes it harder, you know, that’s a source of concern,” Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “But I don’t know how all the politics will sort out.”
As New York battens down the hatches, both candidates have cancelled appearances while the Internet fills with images of flooded streets and shaking trees and water filling subway stations. New York is the favourite setting of disaster movies. The apocalypse always loves Wall Street, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. Now a real-life King Kong is shaking the city and the world is mesmerised.
Neither campaign wants to be caught reading politics into storms but if there is a silver lining to all the clouds over Manhattan, it’s for President Obama. Hurricane Sandy might just be Obama’s friend. He gets to be President Obama again instead of Candidate Obama. Americans love a leader in a crisis and Obama can look presidential as opposed to sparring with Mitt Romney about health care and jobs and intelligence failures in Libya.
At a White House briefing Obama didn’t even mention the election until a reporter asked him about it reports the Christian Science Monitor.
“I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” Obama said. “I’m worried about the impact on families, and I’m worried about the impact on our first responders. I’m worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation.”
If there is a Sandy test for Obama, its passing grade is clear — he must make sure to score higher than Bush on Katrina. “He does not want to be an echo to President George W Bush’s response to hurricane Katrina, which became a symbol of incompetence,” writes Princeton historian Julian Zelizer at CNN.com.
George W Bush’s reputation took a severe beating after his ham-handed response to Hurricane Katrina. To many Americans, Katrina, more than Iraq, is the albatross around Bush’s neck, the dark stain on his legacy.
Mitt Romney’s Sandy test is a little trickier than Obama’s. He has already put his foot in his mouth with a too-hasty response to the Libyan consulate attack and was pilloried for trying to make political hay out of an American tragedy. This time his campaign has been cautious.
“Governor Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm’s way,” his spokesman said in a statement. Romney made a campaign bus available for relief efforts.
Noble sentiments but Romney can ill-afford to disappear altogether leaving the stage clear for Obama. With the race tightening within the margin of error he’s the one who can least afford a Frankenstorm getting in the way of his voter face time. Yet anything he says risks sounding like he is trying to piggyback on a hurricane to electoral victory. Either way Sandy is an ill wind that blows Romney no good.
Romney had been planning on a last minute ad blitz. But CNN’s Julian Zelitzer writes he’s going to have to rethink that.
As Americans watch to see their fellow countrymen and women struggling through a crisis, they won’t want to be bombarded with 30-second attack ads.
All he can really do is hope and pray Obama does a Bush.
But with 14 deaths and 5.7 million out of power till now, Sandy might have a sobering message meant for both Obama and Romney. For the first time since 1984 climate change didn’t even come up in the presidential debates according to Democracy Now.
“It’s really important that everybody, even those who aren’t in the kind of path of this storm, reflect about what it means that in the warmest year in US history, … in a year when we saw, essentially, summer sea ice in the Arctic just vanish before our eyes, what it means that we’re now seeing storms of this unprecedented magnitude,” Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org told Democracy Now. “If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it.”
Scientists will quibble about exactly how much of a fingerprint of climate change one can see in Sandy’s fury. But Mike Tidwell, the author of Ravaging Tide says he hears the message loud and clear according to Huffington Post. Climate change might not cause Sandy but global warming helps it thrive because hurricanes need warm ocean water.
“The irony is that the two presidential candidates decided not to speak about climate change, and now they are seeing the climate speak to them,” said Tidwell. “That’s really what’s happening here. The climate is now speaking to them — and to everyone else.”
And the echoes of that message are going to reverberate well beyond Election Day.