Sandy Cripples The East Coast

10.29.12

How President Obama Will Handle Hurricane Sandy

Top aides say the storm comes first, the campaign second. Even Romney fans admit the hurricane presents a great opportunity for the president to assert command. By James Warren

President Obama will focus first and foremost on the impact of Hurricane Sandy, no matter how many previously scheduled campaign appearances he must drop, according to a senior White House official and a top campaign aide.

“The president’s first priority is to keep Americans safe and make sure FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] is working. He will focus on that until he is confident that the worst is over. That is far more important to him” than his campaign schedule, said one official who requested anonymity while speaking about sensitive internal discussions.

A top adviser to several presidents, including Obama, supported that inclination. Speaking of Obama, he said,  “He has no alternative but to not campaign whether that gives him a kind of ‘I’m in charge’ moment or, more likely, makes the case that government has the only role when crisis hits—-and even those antigovernment people need government too, when crises happen.”

The discussion among Obama aides has been predictable, especially in the final days of a tight race when multiple reasons to feel anxious surface each day. That ranges from the nuts-and-bolts impact of the storm on early voting by Obama supporters to speculating on the best way to show presidential concern while still making political appearances in battleground areas.

But those close to Obama asserted that there’s little ambiguity in his own thinking—namely that the ramifications of Sandy come first.

Several Republican Party advisers, who asked to not be identified, conceded, as one put it, that “Obama could get a lift from successful management of the crisis by appearing presidential, decisive, in charge.” One then added a partisan shot: "all the traits he hasn’t exhibited lately on the campaign trail!”

The Romney hope, said several GOP sources, is that no swing state beyond Virginia is severely socked by Sandy, meaning that their precinct-by-precinct ground efforts will be largely unimpeded in Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin and Colorado, among others.

David Axelrod, a top Obama strategist, has raised the prospect of the storm limiting early voting by Obama supporters that is deemed important for his chances. Some GOP operatives disagree, arguing it is not at all clear that any such storm-related downturn might disproportionately hurt Obama. Others doubted the storm—and the president’s handling of its aftermath—will have much net impact at all.

John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, contends that such an impact is unlikely and doesn’t buy the notion of some that Sandy would depress turnout in blue states, and thus hurt Obama, to a greater extent.

His belief is that research on early voting suggests that it tends “to make it easier for habitual voters to vote,” as opposed to ginning up turnout from softer or less frequent voters.

Could media attention on the storm swamp coverage of the campaign? Democratic and Republican campaign operatives generally suggested that such a turn could simply place a greater premium on high-quality field work and paid advertising.

Political scientists have studied the impact of nasty weather on elected officials. Among the latest looks: “Make it Rain?(PDF). Retrospection and the Attentive Electorate in the Context of Natural Disasters” by political scientists John T. Casper of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Andrew Reeves of Boston University.

The duo studied governor and presidential elections from 1970 to 2006 and concluded that “electorates punish presidents and governors for sever weather damage.” But they also found that such responses can be “dwarfed by the response of attentive electorates to the actions of their officials.

Several Republican Party advisers, who asked not to be identified, conceded, as one put it, that 'Obama could get a lift from successful management of the crisis by appearing presidential, decisive, in charge.' One then added a partisan shot: 'all the traits he hasn’t exhibited lately on the campaign trail!'

“When the president rejects a request by the governor for federal  assistance, the president is punished and the governor is rewarded at the polls. The electorate is able to separate random events from governmental responses and attribute actions based on the defines roles of these two politicians,” they write.

Thus, the sort of attentiveness Obama now plans to exhibit can draw a very favorable local response—especially when federal aid is involved. That decision, the academics conclude, “outweighs all but the most extreme observed cases of damage,” meaning that the devastation has to be of a huge magnitude to deflect the seeming political gain that has come a president’s way.

Their study would seem relevant to the extent that Sandy impacts battleground states. Given its path, that would seem to bring into play Virginia and Pennsylvania and, possibly, New Hampshire and some areas of Ohio. Sides, the George Washington University professor, finds it unlikely that it could change matters in Pennsylvania, given the president’s apparently healthy lead there.