It is a standby of political journalism every four years to ponder what event will qualify as the “October surprise” of the election cycle. The assumption is that the incumbent administration will attempt to manipulate some incident in order to either discredit the opposition or to flaunt their leadership skills. Despite the fact that most presidential elections come and go without anything like that happening, it isn’t just paranoids who wait and watch for something that will change the fate of the candidates. So far in 2012 the only unexpected event that has occurred in October was the first presidential debate that showcased Mitt Romney’s strengths and Barack Obama’s weaknesses. But this week something may happen that could potentially play the role of the last-minute game changer: Hurricane Sandy.
With the East Coast battening down the hatches for a potential disaster, politics is the furthest thing from the minds of those in the storm’s path. But you can bet that both campaigns are pondering more than just changing their schedules to stay out of those areas affected by the hurricane. While the odds of this turning into the kind of political disaster for the president that Hurricane Katrina became for President Bush are fairly slim, some paranoid Republicans may worry that if President Obama is seen as doing an effective job leading rescue or recovery effort in the next week, it could give him a jolt of momentum that could make the difference in a close race. That is possible, but I think the idea that a natural disaster is going to impact the views of a critical mass of voters in such a way as to influence them to support Obama is pretty far-fetched. Though it is to be hoped that federal agencies acquit themselves admirably in the coming days and that no discredit is brought down upon the government or the White House, there is a reason why such events are called disasters. If history teaches us anything, storms provide politicians with more chances to screw up than to look good.
The circumstances that turned bad weather into the turning point for George W. Bush’s presidency were unique and probably can’t be replicated. Even if poor black coastal communities were to suffer disproportionately this week, no one will say it is the result of President Obama’s racism or blame him for the failures of local and state authorities. But when faced with distress of the kind that we are told to expect, it takes more than a sympathetic look from a president who helicopters in to look at the damage to convince people that things are okay. The potential for some failure or screw-up to make the government look bad is far greater than any opportunity for Obama to play the hero.
It should be admitted that it might be better for the president for him to spend a couple of days acting like a president rather than to be chasing around swing states engaging in name-calling against his foe or using expletives to describe him. But a mere photo op or the awarding of disaster aid to a region or city won’t win many hearts or minds in an election in which there are few truly undecided voters. The only political impact of the storm will probably be in how it influences turnout in coastal states, especially Virginia. But that’s unlikely to hurt one party more than the other.
The fact is the obsession with October surprises is based on the fallacy that the electorate is more fickle than it actually is. In a year when the economy is the main issue, a potentially damning incident like the fiasco in Libya last month has had little impact on the Obama-Romney race. Whatever they may think of what happened, Democrats are not likely to abandon their leader because of it since they prioritize domestic issues. Republicans who are outraged about the administration’s dishonesty and who rightly demand answers about what happened would not have supported Obama even if this had never happened.
If Sandy is this year’s October surprise, that’s just another way of saying that there isn’t one.