Which Way the Wind Blows

The Washington Monthly‘s media consultant asked me earlier today if I wanted to go on radio to talk about Sandy’s impact on the election, and I responded that I was probably as qualified to offer ill-informed speculation as anyone else. With the storm still raging and the recovery just now getting underway, it seems hard to make any hard judgments about something this so unprecedented so close to a national election.

But at TNR, Alec MacGillis gets about as close to the heart of the question as one can at this early juncture: Sandy’s impact probably depends on the extent to which anyone out there (i.e., undecided voters) is still paying attention to the policy choices the two candidates represent:

If one believes that we were completely into the turnout phase, then the storm poses a bigger threat to Obama. As my colleague Nate Cohn has argued, the 2012 race really is about turnout, and specifically the turnout of Obama supporters—to the extent that Obama can make the final tally look more like the “registered voter” line in the polls, where he generally leads, rather than the “likely voter” line, where things are much tighter, he wins. From this standpoint, anything that makes voting less convenient is bad for the Democrats—this is why Republicans fight so aggressively against expanding early voting hours. And indeed, the storm has made things less convenient. In swing-state Virginia, for instance, in-person absentee voting was suspended in 26 cities and counties Monday, mostly in the Democratic vote-troves of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads…

But to the extent that the race was still an open question, with some voters still making up their minds or willing to change them at the last instant, it is hard not to believe that the storm has helped the president. Put simply, it has brought the race back closer to first principles. For most of the year, Obama had successfully framed the election as a choice between two approaches, one favoring the Bain Capital upper crust, the other geared toward the broad middle—the 99 percent and, yes, the 47 percent. But then came Romney’s great Etch-a-Sketch moment in the Denver debate and his subsequent blurring of distinctions on everything from health care to tax cuts to foreign policy. After initially being caught off balance, Obama was finding a way to build the case that such a revision could not be trusted, and had, the more empirically-minded pundits agreed, brought Romney’s surge to a plateau where Obama still held a slight but crucial battleground edge.

In other words, Sandy could be the exclamation point on Obama’s framing of the election, and the “big” event that made the choice facing voters seem equally “big”–big enough, in fact, to compel an extra effort to vote.

Like Alec, I’m not sure which way this particular wind is blowing: a reminder of the true differences between the parties, or a little voter suppression help from nature. But for the sake of a reasonably honest election, let’s hope it’s the former.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.