Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Sandy Surprise

In a country as big and messy as this one, nothing is to be as consistently expected in Presidential elections, as the unexpected. In 2008 it was the Lehmann meltdown which cost McCain any chance of winning. In 2004 it was the final Osama Bin Laden tape which, together with the Ohio Secretary of State's office, probably cost John Kerry the election. In 2000 it was... well, we all know what it was in 2000, now, don't we.

This year's "October Surprise" is of course a massive storm which has slammed into the northeastern United States just a week before election day -- with consequences ranging from major flooding in New York City, to power outages in eastern Ohio, to all but comically deep accumulations of snow in the middle- and lower Appalachian mountains. This is nothing to wax idle-pundit about, either: People have lost their lives in this storm and will continue to do so for several days -- though the impression that is slowly forming in this commentator's mind is that the chances for a Katrina-sized death toll (or corresponding embarrassment for the White House) are already effectively nil.

Allowing that the situation transcends our usual partisan gamesmanship, it is unavoidable human nature to wonder in print just exactly what effect the storm will have on the trajectory of the Presidential horse race -- with outlets ranging from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous having already weighed in. The broad consensus seems to be that the storm cannot possibly help the President, given the suppressive effect it is sure to have on the turnout of poor and minority voters in such crucial states as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. I hope you will therefore pardon me for taking a few paragraphs to weigh in with the contrary viewpoint that the storm can no longer harm the President's chances of reelection and will almost certainly help them instead, both directly and by hurting the candidacy of Mr. Romney.

To begin with, there is the fact that the President is the only one of the two candidates for the job, who already *has* the job -- and that this will only hurt his reelection prospects if his FEMA Director turns out to be a failed Arabian horse-show judge who spends the next twenty-four hours sending e-mails about shoe shopping. This isn't going to happen, of course, because the President comes from a party that believes there still are certain tasks best-suited for a government, and that among these number the task of responding to a natural disaster. I didn't have this blog in 2005, but it seems almost tautological to me that when you spend your whole life campaigning against government, few should find it surprising when you and your Pioneer-donors prove incapable of running the government. This description fits the President's predecessor, but it does not fit the President or his team: This time the grown-ups are in charge, and they're acting like it.

Part-and-parcel of this differential status is the ability of the President to "Lyndon-Johnson this thing," as a friend of mine put it this morning, with earnest calls pledging direct access and immediate response, being placed to such improbable recipients as the keynote speaker for this year's Republican National Convention, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The Governor's on-the-record praise of both the conversation he had with the President, and the pledges that were made to him personally have already been noted in other sources, and their unilateral effusiveness would have seemed downright bizarre in a race that was as neck-and-neck as the mainstream media wants this one to be. But only if one allows that this race really is as up-for-grabs as we've been hearing.

Mr. Christie is no dummy, and his own Presidential aspirations will clearly receive a major shot in the arm if his sudden burst of pragmatic bipartisanship is rewarded with an Obama reelection next week: In going out of his way to praise the President, Christie will be able to argue in four years -- perhaps convincingly -- that he is the only major candidate from the GOP who has demonstrated his ability to (wait for it, now) "work together to get things done." Others have been puzzled by Christie's bend-over-backward gratitude toward Obama; I for one think Mr. Christie is tipping the cards of the GOP's internal polling in places they can't win without, by acting as if he already knows that they aren't going to win them. 

It is Mr. Romney, meanwhile, who is left with no one in particular to call and nothing in particular to pledge by way of support. Romney has already scheduled a campaign rally disguised as a storm relief fundraiser in southeastern Ohio, but this is a move fraught with the very sorts of peril that Romney spent his summer falling into over and over again. A gaffe, a smirk, even a whiff of bait-and-switch partisan opportunism (all of which would seem to be bedrock aspects of the man's character at this point), and the same star-struck mainstream press will turn on him with a ratings-driven thirst for the jugular that we haven't seen since the London Olympics.

With apologies to the conspiracy theorists in our midst, the mainstream media's evident credulity in covering the Romney comeback is only as durable as Mr. Romney's continued ability not to fuck it up. The instant he does so, the media will turn on him to avoid being caught behind the curve of public opinion. And with a week to go before the election, this would be devastating to the candidacy of a man who, some appearances to the contrary, is still running structurally and durably behind in the chase for 270 electoral votes.

Which brings us to the map. President Obama has enjoyed an enormous structural advantage in the electoral college since before the general election campaign even began, of course -- with the states that went Democratic in each of the past four election cycles already adding up to 242 electoral votes, to Mr. Romney's Republican firewall of 191. Add New Mexico and Nevada to Mr. Obama's total, both of which seem utterly out-of-reach for Team Boathouse, and Obama gets to 253.

If the Democratic ticket carries Ohio alone, where Mr. Obama's polling lead exceeds Romney's corresponding advantages in Florida or Virginia or even North Carolina, the election is over. Ditto if they carry Virginia and any of the other unresolved states besides New Hampshire, and this is *without* Ohio. Ditto if they carry just Iowa, Colorado, and New Hampshire by themselves. Mr. Romney must hope that the combination of a storm-soaked voter turnout operation that suppresses Democratic support disproportionately, together with a last-minute blitz of shockingly misleading commercials in Ohio, will be enough to prevent *any* of these scenarios from happening. That seems unlikely even without the benefit of knowing anything about the differential integrity of the relevant polls.

Less scientific is my personal sense that Mr. Obama is in a much stronger position even than all of that, precisely because so many people have already voted. The early voting numbers in Iowa and Nevada and Ohio are whoppingly in the President's favor, and with all three of those states in the blue column there would be simply nothing Mr. Romney could do about it. If one ignores the Rassmussen polls (which have shown a consistently high Republican house effect and are being ignored or carefully quarantined by nearly all the major analysts), the President is leading in Virginia and Colorado and within four points in Arizona. The paths to reelection are manifold for Mr. Obama and the paths for Mr. Romney to unseat him are singularly precarious and, in all cases, contingent on an improbable series of polling errors that would all have to favor the same side.

The Romney team's version of this story hinges on two key aspects: First, the storm is supposed to not only secure Virginia (a state Mr. Obama does not need) by suppressing Democratic turnout there; it is also supposed to flip Pennsylvania. The latter seems hardly any more likely to happen than it was in 2008, but it is certainly true that the President's support is not as strong among white voters -- particularly among white men, but increasingly among white women -- as it was in 2008, or even before the first debate, so it's a question worth considering in some detail here.

A soaking rain will suppress Democratic turnout more than Republican turnout, all other things equal. But a flood, by contrast, brings peoples' collective consciousness back to civic-mindedness and the unavoidable role for government in dealing with society-wide crises. Nobody was pro George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, not even Fox News -- and a dramatic flood of the notoriously flood-prone Susquehanna won't suppress a lot of Democrats anyway since Democrats don't live there. The decreased white-voter support for the President, meanwhile, is offset in large measure by demographic trends favoring minorities: One of the reasons that fewer white people are planning to support the President is that there are fewer of them to do so.

Where Democrats *do* live, is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, especially the former, and for all the talk about infrastructure problems causing electoral chaos, big cities are always the first places to get their power back, and the most likely ones to have polling places in municipal facilities equipped with backup generators. If a Baptist church in DuBois and a public library on the Main Line lose their power at the same instant, I have no doubt as to which one will get it back first, or which one will continue to seamlessly carry-out its early voting hours in the meantime. The rain isn't expected to cut into early voting by more than a day or a day and a half -- a margin that seems to me easily re-taken by the heightened social awareness that accompanies higher participation in elections. Call me irrationally optimistic, but if a year-long concerted effort to disenfranchise Democrats hasn't taken Pennsylvania out of the President's column, I just can't see a week-early hurricane having a flipping effect, now. Things would be different if Sandy were only just making landfall this coming Saturday. She isn't.

Meanwhile the other prong of the Romney-Hurricane narrative is that the storm has cleared Mr. Romney's calendar to go after some late-tightening states that count among Mr. Obama's aforementioned 253 banked electoral votes, but which single polls in the past week or so have indicated may yet come into play. But this seems dubious to me as well, first because campaigning in these places will carry many of the same risks for the gaffe-prone Romney as would be carried by showing up in the middle of the storm, but also because it sounds so eerily familiar and with so few successful recent precedents.

Republicans positively *relish* the idea of forcing Democrats to flail defensively in a last-second panic to shore-up states they'd taken for granted; it is an unsurprisingly central campaign tactic of the party favored by schoolyard bullies. Hate your opponents, equate that hatred with perceived weakness (and, curiously, perceived overconfidence at the same time), then capitalize on that self-spun narrative by forcing the rest of us to watch those opponents squirm around on the playground, looking for the rest of their lunch money. This is what bullies *do*.

This year the Romney people are giddily spending ad-money in Minnesota and Oregon, on the grounds that a single statewide poll has shown signs of a tight race in both locations within the past few days. Flipping one or the other or both of these states would clearly frustrate Mr. Obama's path back to 270 -- indeed flipping both of them would be slightly better than flipping Pennsylvania by itself -- there's only one small problem for the Romney camp: It ain't gonna happen.   

The key difficulty for Republicans in these matters is that the story they tell themselves is driven as much by their petty desires as by the cold hard facts on the ground, and election after election after election in our modern era has reaffirmed this point. In 2008, Pennsylvania itself was supposed to be far tighter than the poll-of-polls was showing the rest of us, and McCain lost the state by eleven. In 2004 it was supposed to be Hawaii, to which Dick Cheney made a last-minute trip for a hastily convened campaign rally, abruptly after which his boss lost the state by nine. In 2000 it was supposed to be Minnesota (which Bush lost by a small margin) and California (which Bush lost by a big one). In 1996 it was supposed to be New Jersey and Rhode Island and in 1992 it was supposed to be California again. Wanting these single, wacky-outlier polls to be right, for no better reason than their timing so late in the election cycle, is hardly the same thing as them being so -- though in the interest of full disclosure it's worth reporting that the Obama campaign is taking nothing for granted and has matched Mr. Romney in these last-minute advertising buys in the blue states. Still, in the absence of further confirmation that Minnesota and Oregon and even Pennsylvania really are in play, color me dubious to say the least.

All of which leaves, in the end, the same path to victory for Mr. Romney as existed before the storm, before the debates, before the conventions, before the trip overseas: The gamble that Mr. Obama -- this time as a result of a combination of crisis-management improvisation and a supposed unease about the tightness of the race -- will make a self-destructive mistake that allows the challenger to break the rest of the way through to victory. If that sounds like a familiar strategy, it may be because it's the same one the McCain/Palin team was stuck with at this point in 2008. And now, just as then, the real reason that I think Mr. Obama will win is that the odds of someone making a self-destructive mistake, in the last week of this race, favor the President even more than the polls do.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

No comments: