Here’s a picture of Hurricane Sandy. Can you spot the swing state?
That is, of course, the wrong question to ask. Most people don’t want politics to corrupt the collective response to a crisis. For our leaders, that means tackling this emergency without caring about political goals or risks. For us, it means focusing on helping each other and putting politics aside. President Obama hit that note in his press conference on Monday afternoon, saying:
I am not worried at this point on the impact on the election. I’m worried about the impact on families and our first responders.
Even if political maneuvering is quarantined for a few days, however, political reality will not be ignored. If the forecasts are right, this storm is on pace to essentially truncate the homestretch of the presidential campaign. Instead of the closing arguments and flagrant fouls that characterize the end of tight races, people will watch the President take command during a crisis.
That dynamic is usually an advantage for the incumbent. In fact, even in crises where a president’s performance or policies prove unpopular, the short-term reaction tends to trigger an automatic spike in public approval. (In the international context, political scientist John Mueller documented this trend in his authoritative study, Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson.) So even if Hurricane Sandy causes great tragedy and legitimate questions about the government’s response, the incumbent is unlikely to suffer for it at the polls.
And that’s not the only hard part for Romney.
While the notion of putting politics aside is often presented as a “neutral” or universal goal, it effectively punishes the challenger more, by leaving him with nothing to do. Campaigning or debating during a policy challenge makes both candidates relevant — and there’s plenty to debate when big policy decisions are on the table. (It’s always struck me as absurd that faced with a policy crisis, people say candidates should stop campaigning on policy. But that’s how both parties deal with gun control after mass shootings, and how the McCain Campaign initially reacted to the financial crisis.) Now that campaigning is suspended, it’s hard for Romney to do anything constructive or be in the conversation. So Romney has a tough challenge — “to remain relevant and not sit idly by while the president shows empathy and leadership,” as John Hudak of the Brookings Institution observed today.
In the end, it is understandable that we don’t want disaster response infected by any hint of partisan goals, but that does not require sublimating all campaigning during the final stretch of the campaign.
- Ari Melber