Blaming Sandy Would Be Great

A lot of speculation out there now that if Mitt Romney loses, Republicans will blame Sandy for the loss. Momentum was going Romney’s way all through October, but the storm shut down the normal campaign and Barack Obama squeaked through with a win.

If that’s what they’ll say: that’s good news!

Here’s the thing. If Romney loses, we can guarantee one thing: Republicans will not interpret it as confirmation that the American people prefer the Democrats’ ideas to their ideas (for which they would be correct, by the way; that’s not how elections work). Nor will they interpret it as mainly a function of the likely effects of a (slowly) recovering economy, a nation moving (slowly) from unpopular wars to something closer to peace, and an incumbent president seeking re-election just one term after a very unpopular Republican was in the White House. That’s actually an interpretation which fits the evidence, but political actors tend not to be very good at accepting that sort of (close to) determinism, and that’s not only understandable, but probably a pretty good thing.

No, if Romney loses, Republicans will naturally be drawn to more simple explanations of why it shouldn’t count. That’s what most of us tend to do when our side loses.

The hope, however, is that the explanations that parties believe would be relatively constructive, or at least not particularly poisonous. The latter, alas, is common. It includes most of what Marc Ambinder speculates Republicans will say — that the liberal media is out to get them, that the Republicans are far too moderate, and that they “really” won but voter fraud stole the election. Remember, lots of Republicans told pollsters they believed that voter fraud elected Obama in 2008, when it wasn’t remotely plausible; we should expect a lot more of that if the polls are correct and it’s a close result this time.

By contrast, thinking they were on their way to victory when a massive storm derailed them would be a relatively healthy response, the way that deciding that you lost because your candidate’s TV ads stunk or because he didn’t have the best zinger in the debates is a mostly non-destructive response.

The truth is that Republicans do have some real problems right now, and they would be wise to try to do something about them (even if those problems aren’t large enough to prevent them from ever winning nationally). But it’s rare for a party to react to defeat by quickly and accurately diagnosing everything wrong with their side and then rapidly changing it. So that’s too much to ask. All I’d hope for is that they avoid eroding the basic structures of US democracy, by (for example) undermining people’s confidence that elections are honest. If that’s what they use Sandy for, I’m not going to complain.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.