Why Hurricane Sandy Is the Most Important Woman in the Swing States

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 29 2012 4:00 PM

Mother Nature Plays Politics

Today Hurricane Sandy is the most important woman in the swing states.

Barack Obama speaks to the press after a briefing on hurricane Sandy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington on Sunday.
President Obama at a briefing on Hurricane Sandy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington on Sunday

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Hurricane Sandy has interrupted the campaign, which makes her the most important woman in the swing states. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Politics has taken a pause, but we all know it's a temporary one. It's unseemly to talk about politics with so many people about to face genuine danger. Then again, this campaign already has broken a lot of old rules. Candidates used to be loosely constrained by the facts. Not so much any more. Candidates used to be prohibited from making political attacks during a fresh national security crisis. So it seems inevitable that Sandy will become a political force. It's also fitting for a campaign that has so often felt like a skirmish on the side stage that here we are facing deadly realities. In a sense, though, this storm touches on what this campaign has always been about: What should the federal government do, and does it have the resources to do it? We are eight days away from an election. This is the 2012 campaign's October surprise. (Though given the way this campaign has unfolded, there might be a November surprise.) 

Natural disasters can hit presidents in two ways. In 2004, President Bush visited victims of Hurricane Francis in early September as his party was holding its convention. He played the first responder role then. A year later, Hurricane Katrina sidetracked his presidency. If presidents get more blame for a weak economy than perhaps they deserve, there are also moments when there are political benefits to the office. In times like this, Americans—Democrat and Republican alike—turn to government. 

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President Obama pulled himself off the campaign trail on Monday and returned from Florida before he attended a single event. He's not campaigning for at least two days. For the moment, in the major story of the day, he has a key role. As I type this, word has arrived from the White House that the president is in the Situation Room talking with his advisers, and as I review it, he has just finished speaking to reporters in the briefing room. "I'm not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” said the president. “I'm worried about the impact on families." Still, there will be some poetical cost or gain based on how his administration manages the disaster that all the forecasters say is coming. (Political scientists have even measured this.)

What does Mitt Romney do? Before the storm hit, he was trying to build the sense of a campaign that is rising as it approaches the finish line. His supporters are fired up like never before, but he's not gaining on the president as he did after the first debate. Nate Silver says they have returned to the condition they were in during the spring and summer, which puts Obama in the better position. 

Romney needs to create a bandwagon effect to lure undecided voters. He has canceled his campaign events Monday and Tuesday. In the interim, it's hard to stay in the story without looking like he’s seeking political gain. His campaign informed reporters that he was on the phone with the governors of Virginia and New Jersey monitoring the situation. It's not quite clear what "monitoring" means in this context since he has no formal role to pay. (As I type this from Washington, a gust caused the windows to make such a noise that I thought it was the door opening.) Romney has also suspended his campaign fundraising emails into the affected states, as has the president.

All of this stopped activity doesn’t mean that the campaigns aren’t trying to skewer each other under the table. In Ohio, they are engaged in a heated fight over the auto bailout, an important issue in the state where the economy is closely tied to the car industry. On Sunday, the Romney campaign released an ad suggesting Chrysler, a company saved in the bailout and sold to Fiat, would be making cars in China. It was an extension of a false claim made by Romney that the firm would be making all cars in China. The Obama campaign responded with its own ad.