Despite the relatively mild effects of Hurricane Sandy on Cambridge weather, Harvard students were nonetheless impacted by the storm, as the administration cancelled classes for the first time in 34 years. But beyond the comforts of campus, others were not so lucky: more than a half-dozen states suffered billions of dollars in damage and a number of lives lost. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called it “incalculable.”
But the significance of that storm runs deeper than the immediate physical impacts. Indeed, many had already begun to discuss the political ramifications of the storm just hours into its solemn aftermath, with various possible scenarios contributing both positively and negatively to each campaign. And although both sides insisted that they weren’t focusing on the political impacts of the hurricane, their campaigns were certainly affected to no small degree.
The swing states of New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia–all of which were in practically a dead-heat–experienced the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. Campaign appearances, rallies, fundraising events, television advertisements, media coverage, door-to-door efforts, and early voting options, to name a few things, were all affected in these vital battleground areas.
This meant consequences for both candidates: Romney’s momentum stalled, and Obama missed out on vital campaign time (his scheduled rallies with Bill Clinton in Florida and Ohio were all cancelled). In addition, likely voters may have stayed home. The number of ways in which the election was affected is immeasurable.
But more important than any of this, I believe, is the image the candidates began to cultivate in a time of crisis. And for President–not candidate–Obama, this meant both the opportunity to craft a presidential image and the risk of crafting an incompetent one.
Romney clearly capitalized on an opportunity to redeem a presidential image; he was accused of using the national security crisis in Libya for political gain, and moved away from this strategy with Hurricane Sandy, instead distributing food and supplies from his campaign bus to those in need. However, the president, as commander in chief, clearly stood to gain or lose the most in terms of political image. This could be interpreted in multiple ways: the country often rallies around the president in times of crisis, but also often blames the incumbent for the effects of natural disasters. Many have suggested, for example, that severe drought and excessive rainfall hindered enthusiasm for the incumbent party in 2000 and may have cost Vice President Al Gore the election.
But for President Obama, how he chose to handle the crisis proved decisive. As president, Obama did an excellent job; even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was a top surrogate for Governor Romney and has previously referred to President Obama as “nothing more than a Chicago ward politician,” praised the president’s response.
This gave President Obama not only a presidential image, but a bipartisan one as well. Indeed, the president saw his approval ratings receive a solid boost in the run-up to the election; his favorability rating rose by six percentage points while Romney’s dropped by seven, and he suddenly received the resounding endorsement of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Because of this, I believe the polls on Election Day were friendlier to the president—and perhaps rightfully so.
It has become clear that Hurricane Sandy was a major storm in more ways than one. History will inevitably show that an unprecedented storm was a deciding factor in last week’s presidential election.