Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was staking his claim to the far right during the GOP primaries when he first declared that he’d like to gut the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and privatize disaster relief.
That extreme position takes on added meaning now in a tightly contested presidential election as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the U.S. eastern seaboard with the potential of leaving a swath of death and destruction in its wake. How Romney and President Barack Obama react during the lead-up to the monster storm and its aftermath could determine how the election turns out on Nov. 6.
Hurricane Sandy is epic in scale according to the National Weather Service, reaching from Florida to Connecticut. Romney’s call to gut FEMA in exchange for private contractors might not go over too well in the several swing states in harm’s way of the monster storm such as Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Political scientists have found that extreme weather affects how voters evaluate presidents and governors, and botching disaster response can dash incumbents’ reelection hopes. Andrew Reeves and John T. Gasper, political science professors at Boston University and Carnegie Mellon University, respectively, found that voters punish leaders for failing to react adequately to natural disasters, while rewarding those who do.
“Voters did in fact punish both governors and presidents for damage caused by natural disasters, but that that effect was really swamped by their response,” Reeves says. “[Voters] rewarded when governors [asked for] and presidents [gave] help, and they punished when they didn’t.”
The Republican Party was three years removed from Hurricane Katrina in 2008, but paid dearly for the George W. Bush administration’s bungled response to the disaster that unfolded in New Orleans.
It may seem bizarre that something like the weather would affect who lives in the White House come January. But freak events like Sandy aren’t the only kind of weather that affects voters’ decisions. There’s evidence voters even punish incumbents for harsh weather over the course of an election year, despite it being by definition out of politicians’ control.
“The pretty strong pattern turns out to be that all other things being equal, the incumbent party does less well when it’s too wet or too dry,” says Larry Bartels, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.
“Every president puts up pictures of himself with shirtsleeves rolled up comforting voters,” Reeves says. “I’m willing to bet that we’re going to see the White House put up a picture of Obama doing the same.”
In this case, Reeves is right: On Friday, the White House sent out a photograph of President Obama on a conference call with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials.
“Don’t anticipate that just because the immediate storm has passed that we’re not going to have some potential problems in a lot of these communities going forward through the week,” Obama said after a visit to FEMA headquarters.
But political theater can minimize the human cost of natural disasters and make a bungled response look even worse. Nothing spoke worse than the iconic White House-released photograph of President Bush flying over New Orleans looking down from his plane.
But how things play out for either candidate will be difficult to gauge as the weather could potentially disrupt the ability of any of the polls to conduct interviews or to reach the millions of Americans who may soon be without electricity or telephone service.
Romney has already re-routed his campaign from Virginia to join his vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan in Ohio, one of the handful of battleground states that will decide the outcome of the Nov. 6 election.
Like the former Massachusetts governor, the president canceled events in Virginia, a battleground state that could bear the brunt of the storm’s impact.
Both campaigns also canceled events in New Hampshire, which could face high winds and heavy rain.
“The last thing the president and I want to do is get in the way of anything,” Vice President Joe Biden told campaign volunteers in Manchester, New Hampshire, before leaving for Ohio. “The most important thing is people’s safety and people’s health.”
Officials in the path of the storm scrambled to ensure that extended power outages would not disrupt the early voting that appears to be critical for both candidates this year.
Obama said he did not think the storm would impact voting, but some on his campaign staff were not so certain.
A severe disruption could hurt Obama more than Romney because his campaign has counted on early voting to lock up the support of those who may be less likely to vote on Election Day.