The October Surprise: Superstorm Sandy and the U.S. Election | By Graeme Archibald

            On Monday night, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the northeastern United States. The storm was and is a very unique meteorological phenomenon, one of which we likely won’t see again in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, the rare nature of this system also gave it incredible destructive power – perhaps the worst ever seen on the eastern seaboard. Sandy has set a number of records, including the largest storm ever in the Atlantic basin, and the most intense hurricane observed north of the Carolinas. Additionally, the storm produced record storm surges in New York City, of 13.8 feet, which has caused massive flooding in Lower Manhattan and has inundated the New York City subway system, likely putting it out of commission for at least a week. As of this writing, 38 people have been confirmed dead in the U.S. and 67 in the Caribbean.

Sandy has, as expected, devastated New York, New Jersey, and surrounding states. As these areas begin to recover, another question has emerged – what effect this major disaster will have on the November 6th election, which will be held in one week. In the immediate lead-up to the storm and during the height of its impacts, both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney suspended their campaigns. For Obama, there was a need to switch from candidate to President, to oversee the federal response to the multi-billion dollar disaster in the most populous region in the country. For Romney, it was more of a symbolic gesture, but a genuine one nonetheless.

Prior to Sandy, national polls had the presidential race at a statistical dead heat. The Electoral College is a slightly different story, with President Obama currently leading – narrowly – in most swing states, which would easily hand him the necessary 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency.  That was the situation a few days ago.

Usually, the American media would be feverishly covering the last week of the campaign. Disasters seem to take precedence over elections, particularly those affecting the nation’s largest city. As such, election coverage has almost entirely dropped off, and will likely remain fairly minimal for the next few days. Less focus on the campaign, of course, makes it more difficult for Obama and Romney to get their final messages out.

While the scale of devastation across the Northeast is not yet known, the ramifications could be felt across the region for weeks. As such, there are very real questions surrounding the election itself. Turnout could be greatly reduced in New York City, New Jersey, and other areas which are staunchly Democratic – which could hurt Obama. Some has openly postulated that the election may need to be moved or extended, in order to accommodate the increased difficulty of facilitating the election. However, such a result is unlikely – the postponement or extension of an election would require an act of Congress, which is not going to happen.

Though lower turnout in Democratic states may hurt Obama’s chances, Sandy does give him the chance to look ‘presidential’, demonstrate leadership and control the political discourse, while Romney is limited to holding ‘storm relief fundraisers’. New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie, who has heavily criticized the President in the past, has heaped praise on Obama’s response to the disaster, personally thanking him (meanwhile, Michael Brown, the disgraced director of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina, has criticized Obama for moving “too quickly” on Hurricane Sandy).

The question of FEMA and federal disaster relief may also work in Obama’s favour. During the Republican primary debates, Romney stated that he would slash federal disaster relief funding, and instead download that responsibility onto the states. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has a proposed budget plan that would slash discretionary spending, which would likely result in the elimination or significant downsizing of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With the state governments reeling in Sandy’s wake, it has become readily apparent that FEMA and the federal government is an integral partner in dealing with the aftermath of major disasters.

It will take a few days to understand Sandy’s impact, and the results of this year’s election will likely be studied for years to come to determine the impact of natural disasters. It is safe to say, however, that there will be some effect on the election. And Halloween, too – but thankfully Governor Christie has expressed an intention to reschedule Halloween!

Whatever happens with the election, a serious disaster has occurred, leaving thousands homeless, injured, and in need of assistance. As Sandy moves north, it is very likely that many Canadians in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes will be affected by the storm. If you can, consider donating to the American Red Cross or the Canadian Red Cross.

Graeme Archibald is a fourth-year Political Science Honors student who has been following Sandy and the U.S. election.

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