Why Hurricane Sandy may help Obama at the polls

As we head into the final weekend before Election Day, the big question on many people’s minds is whether Hurricane Sandy will have an impact on the election, and if so, to what extent. Alarmingly, this morning the New York Times is reporting that damage from the storm may make it more difficult for voters in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut — three of the most important blue states — to get to the polls. Other potential problems include delays in counting absentee ballots (because of mail service interruptions) and a heavy, unexpected influx of paper ballots that will have to be counted (because some polling places will be moved).

If voter turnout is reduced in those three Democratic strongholds, it may cut into Barack Obama’s popular vote total, even if, as expected, he wins those states’ electoral votes. This is troubling, because you just know the wingnuts will be pulling out all the stops to discredit an Obama victory, assuming one occurs, and a popular vote loss would be substantial grist for their ever-churning mills. They are of course shameless enough to be utterly untroubled by the fact that a popular vote loss by one of their own in a certain electoral contest in 2000 perturbed them not a whit, and that they relentlessly hectored those of us who were bothered by it to “get over it.”

Quite apart from the presidential election, lower turn-out in heavily Democratic areas could have a major effect on down-ballot races, such as the Connecticut senate contest between Democratic congressman Chris Murphy and Republican professional wrestling impresario Linda McMahon. Though Murphy is currently ahead in the polls, he is enjoying a lead of a little less than 5%, making it conceivable that McMahon could pull off an upset.

In addition to ballot access issues, there’s the large, more-difficult-to-answer question of whether Sandy, and Obama’s response to it, changed any voters’ minds. It certainly appears to have influenced the thinking of some people. Chris Christie, for one, has been singing Obama’s praises, citing the administration’s response to the storm. Mayor Bloomberg, in his unexpected endorsement of Obama, said, in the words of the New York Times, “that the storm reshaped his thinking about the presidential campaign” and made him decide to make the endorsement.

Research has shown that we tend to take opinions or recommendations more seriously when they contradict the previous opinion the recommender held, or contract her self-interest in some way. Given that fact, the positive reactions those two prominent Republicans have shown toward Obama’s leadership during this disaster could certainly sway some undecided voters into the Obama camp. On the other hand, conservatives have been complaining that Obama has allegedly been “playing politics” with the disaster, so that could create a backlash effect against him. It’s also quite possible that, ultimately, it won’t have any significant impact at all, except perhaps for those living in the affected states.

I believe it will help Obama, though. Here’s why: past studies of voting decisions have shown that fear can be a powerful motivator. There is some evidence, for example, that in 2004, when 9/11 and threats of terrorism were uppermost in voters’ minds, voters supported the Republicans because they felt the more hawkish G.O.P. was more likely to protect them militarily. Specifically, the 2004 “October surprise” Bin Laden video seems to have significantly boosted the (re?) election prospects of George W. Bush. Fear of terrorism, in effect, drove voters into the G.O.P. camp.

By the same token, if voters’ minds are concentrated on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, on the toll it took not only in terms of property but in terms of human life, doesn’t it make sense that they’d be more likely to support Democrats? Democrats, after all, have been proven to run FEMA far more competently than Republicans, and to be far more supportive of a strong social safety for those in need, such as, for example, victims of natural disasters. The impact of Hurricane Sandy on those few voters whose minds aren’t already made up will be difficult to measure. But in the end, I believe it will turn out to be a net positive for Barack Obama and the Democrats.

UPDATE: Christie’s praise for Obama’s handling of the storm is an even bigger deal given the fact that we now know that Christie was Romney’s first choice for VP. It sure sucks to be MIttens — even the people who are on his team and whom he seems to like and respect the most have the knives out for him!

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee