For a few crucial days, the prevailing image of Hurricane Sandy in the minds of Americans was that of President Obama being embraced by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The gratitude expressed by the Republican for federal storm relief seemed to not only symbolize a new wave of bipartisanship, but also burnished the president’s image as a competent commander-in-chief. Nearly a week later, that airbrushed picture of the storm has now been replaced by a less pleasant tableau: residents of New York and New Jersey waiting in the cold for help that hasn’t come, with others standing on long lines for scarce gas. As former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pointed out yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may have gotten some great press out of Sandy, but the brutal reality of the storm’s aftermath shows serious flaws in planning for the disaster. The shortages of drinkable water, working generators and gas has made life miserable for too many people.
There’s little doubt the first round of press coverage gave President Obama a tremendous lift last week just at the time when he needed it most. Almost all the national polls showed he gained a few points, knocking Mitt Romney out of the lead he had held since the first presidential debate. The question today as Americans vote is whether the lingering good feelings from that Christie embrace will have worn off by the time many voters step into the booth. The Sandy bounce turned out to be a genuine force in the election and probably the most potent “October surprise” in presidential politics since the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush’s drunk driving arrest as a young man on the eve of the 2000 election. But there may have been just enough time in between Christie’s embrace of Obama and Election Day for some of the sheen to fade from the picture.
It may be that many Americans will not choose to blame the president for the post-Sandy disaster. There are other and probably better candidates for scapegoat, most principally New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The 24/7 news cycle may have moved on from the storm and back to the election this week after liberal journalists had already made their comparisons between Obama’s supposedly masterful handling of Sandy and George W. Bush’s Katrina fiasco. But the pictures of gas lines and homeless storm sufferers may have turned Obama’s advantage into a liability by the time voting began today.
As for the impact of the storm on voting in New York and New Jersey, speculation that it will depress vote totals in these blue states are neither here nor there. It should be remembered that some of the areas most heavily affected, like the borough of Staten Island in New York City, are actually GOP strongholds. Though the provisions for allowing homeless residents of both states to vote elsewhere may create chaos, the odds are it won’t have much impact on who wins the election.
Other factors will do far more to decide the result today than the storm. Turnout in the swing states for both parties will be crucial, as Democrats must recreate the partisan advantage they had in 2008 if the polls predicting an Obama victory are to be vindicated. Though the storm may have helped the president, the far less successful aftermath could have already erased that edge. The question for Romney is whether it happened quickly enough to allow him to gain back the ground he lost last week.