Barack Obama won a second term as president. But the biggest political player of the election cycle, it’s fair to say, was Hurricane Sandy, an 85-mph deus ex machina that provided a boost to Obama and gave Mitt Romney a steep hurdle to overcome as he headed into the home stretch. Karl Rove said so much himself Nov. 2, even as hard-hit communities were still without power.
“If you hadn’t had the storm, there would have been more of a chance for the Romney campaign to talk about the deficit, the debt, the economy,” he told The Washington Post. “When you have attention drawn away to somewhere else, to something else, it is not to his advantage.”
He would say that, of course. He had to say something, after all, to pre-emptively soften the blow for disappointed donors who had funded his months-long anti-Obama ad blitz to the tune of some $171.5 million. We thought it was in the bag, guys, but who can predict a hurricane?
Rove knows the game. He saw firsthand how an unexpected calamity can thoroughly alter the political landscape as well as the physical one. The 9/11 attacks offered President George W. Bush opportunities for optics both bad (My Pet Goat) and good (the Megaphone Moment). Years later, FEMA’s tragically failed response to Hurricane Katrina and Bush’s ill-conceived support for Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown seriously damaged his presidency. (Just in case we needed a reminder of that disaster, Brown appeared in the Globe and Mail just two days after Sandy hit, urging New Yorkers to “just chill.”)
Crass as it is to point out, with the dust settling, Sandy has left more in her wake than 100 deaths and untold billions in damage. The storm also upended the political field, offering elected officials and hopefuls alike a sudden array of unexpected risks and opportunities, scrambling the ideological calculus, reconfiguring alliances and laying bare much of the established rhetoric (particularly as it pertains to climate change and the proper role of government). President Obama was offered a gimme—the chance to act as comforter-in-chief and to demonstrate the beneficence of the federal government, while Romney was relegated to the sidelines, at least when he wasn’t being asked about his past suggestion that we eliminate FEMA altogether.
Meanwhile, Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., both widely regarded as potential presidential candidates for 2016, were able to demonstrate their ability to lead in a crisis, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got to erase any lingering memories of his Bermuda sojourn during the so-called “Snowpocalypse” of 2010. If only it weren’t for that marathon misstep—advocated, someone made sure to inform The New York Times, by his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani—he’d have turned in a pitch-perfect performance himself.
All of them were working on instinct. On the national level, many years of careful preparation and billions spent on focus groups, push polls, talking points and microtargeting were suddenly gone with the wind. Even with the lights flickering, the optics became high-def: Everyone went off-message—they had to—and suddenly what mattered was the human touch, bluster and reflexes.
And, of course, leadership. That thing people elect them for in the first place. Sometimes it takes a perfect storm to blow away all that hot air.
Around the time Rove was evaluating the hurricane’s impact on the presidential race, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker was hosting more than a dozen of his storm-tossed constituents at his home in the Upper Clinton Hill neighborhood. This was retail politics taken to an extreme: After sending out an invitation via Twitter, Booker opened his home to anyone who needed a crash pad, then brought in heaping trays of chicken, fish, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, corn bread and candied yams from a local restaurant. Families snuggled up wherever they could, and exhausted local children zoned out in front of a DVD of Happy Feet, ate Halloween candy and molded animals out of Play-Doh.
If they’d had enough of the stuff, they might have sculpted a giant bust of the mayor and slapped it up on Mount Rushmore. He’d earned it.
“It meant—I can’t even explain,” Alice Bell, one of the neighbors who took refuge in Booker’s home, told The Observer, her voice cracking with emotion. “I mean, we were—I’m still overwhelmed that he would reach out to us like that.”
Booker has long enjoyed a reputation as a “supermayor” for his hands-on style. (Remember the time he rushed into a burning building to save a woman from a house fire? His constituents do.)
But while Booker, who oversees a city of less than 300,000 citizens, is a master of the personal touch—and of Twitter—that option is less realistic for state and federal politicians and mayors such as Bloomberg, whose constituents number in the millions. (Though, had he opened his Upper East Side townhouse, which is valued at more than $30 million, it would have been quite a story.)
Booker’s response—apolitical as it seemed—was brilliant politics. “The best thing that a politician can do is keep away from politics and go volunteer, help out in giving out meals to the area, console the people that have been devastated and, in effect, give everyone a huge hug,” said political consultant George Arzt. “Don’t get in the way of first responders. You’re there as reassurance for people and inspiration.”
Christie, for his part, was so eager to avoid politics he wound up stumbling right into them. “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me,” he told Steve Doocy when asked about his extraordinarily warm embrace of Obama, prompting the New York Post to suggest that he make sure to reiterate his endorsement of Romney “or the Republican party will never forgive him.”
That said, given the widespread praise that has greeted Christie’s handling of the disaster, they might just have to.
While there is no real political playbook when it comes to handling disasters, politicians have been working on it for millennia now. Emperor Titus’ quick response to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius—and the massive fire that consumed much of Rome the following year—earned him approving shout-outs from the ancient press corps.
“In these many great calamities he showed not merely the concern of an emperor, but even a father’s surpassing love, now offering consolation in edicts, and now lending aid so far as his means allowed,” wrote the historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.
Even unelected monarchs can be dethroned when they whiff on a major catastrophe. Emperor Haile Selassie I’s perceived mismanagement of the Wollo famine led to his overthrow in 1974 in a Marxist military coup.
Former Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic saw his hopes for re-election buried along with his city after what was considered a lackluster response to a blizzard. “In the end, God sent us 100 inches of snow in sub-zero weather, and I happened to lose an election because of it,” he would later reflect.
Bush’s job approval rating plummeted in September 2005, after his administration’s widely criticized response to Katrina—which included the misbegotten Air Force One flyover that led to one of the most damaging photo ops in history. The outcry was perhaps best summed up by rapper Kanye West, who proclaimed during a telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Five years later, in his memoir, Decision Points, Bush described the post-Katrina criticism from West and others as an “all-time low” in his presidency.
“Emergency and disaster response is one of the most fundamental functions of government at every level,” noted Michael Tobman, a Brooklyn-based political consultant. “If it is bungled, as the Bush administration did with Katrina, it is never forgotten and never overlooked.”
No doubt aware of the experiences of his predecessors, on Oct. 29, as the storm approached, Obama canceled a planned campaign rally in the crucial battleground state of Florida and flew back to Washington. Even when the campaign resumed after a three-day pause, Obama’s traveling campaign press secretary made sure the public knew it was of secondary concern.
“I’ve spent the last two days with him … in between every single event, he basically walks off the stage, gets on a phone call with governors or mayors or first responders—he’s on calls in the car, he’s on calls in the plane,” Jennifer Psaki said.
Contrary to the imaginings of some right-wing conspiracy theorists, Obama didn’t engineer the storm to juice his candidacy, but he handled it magnificently, leading to a windfall of unexpected praise from one of his chief detractors, Christie. The hurricane also brought a late-breaking endorsement of the president by Bloomberg, who had previously refrained from backing either of the candidates.
“The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast—in lost lives, lost homes and lost business—brought the stakes of the presidential election into sharp relief,” Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed on, where else, Bloomberg View.
Along with kind words from his political colleagues, President Obama also experienced something of a storm surge in public-opinion polls. Romney, on the other hand, found himself politically high and dry. Like Obama’s team, Romney’s campaign made the decision to cancel several of his planned events as Sandy bore down on the East Coast.
Meanwhile, he and his aides hastily converted a planned Ohio “victory rally” into a “storm-relief event.” According to a report in BuzzFeed, the Romney campaign hastily purchased $5,000 worth of supplies for the recovery effort to serve as props for supporters to “donate” at the event. The faux donations and blatantly political elements of the “storm-relief event,” including a promotional video and “victory rally” badges handed out to reporters, led to a deluge of bad press.
Initially, Bloomberg’s handling of the storm was deemed exemplary. He ordered an evacuation of the city’s low-lying areas and opened city shelters while aggressively sounding the alarm before the floodwaters rolled in. Later, his low-key if businesslike demeanor in a series of press conferences (enlivened by his intriguingly effusive ASL interpreter) was almost soothing in its professorial tranquility.
Calm in a storm can only take you so far, though, as Bloomberg discovered in subsequent days. Fuel shortages, looting and continued power outages led to angry residents and harsh headlines. Those emotions faded as the city’s infrastructure returned and lights started to flicker on, but Bloomberg’s convincing performance of nonchalance may have turned prematurely into the real thing: As part of his effort to maintain a sense of normalcy, he vowed to continue with the planned New York City Marathon. The decision provoked the outrage of politicians in the hard-hit outer boroughs as well as the city’s tabloids. “Like hell,” scoffed the New York Post, adding, “Mayor Mike’s trademark Manhattan myopia is back.”
The anti-marathon backlash reached such a fever pitch that, two days before the race, a person claiming to be an employee of the event’s host, New York Road Runners, sent a blistering, if anonymous, letter to the media calling for the marathon’s cancellation.
“I feel bad writing this,” the person wrote. “I have seen friends and coworkers work incredibly hard this year and in years past to put this event together … But for me, that is all gone … As an employee of New York Road Runners, a New Yorker, a runner, and a person I firmly believe that holding this race is wrong.”
Eventually, Bloomberg succumbed to the pressure and canceled the marathon. It was a rare walk-back for a mayor who rarely suffers from self-doubt—and another sign that even the most skilled politician sometimes misreads the mood in times of crisis.
Meanwhile, though most of the media attention was focused on New York City and New Jersey, Cuomo played a central role in the response efforts—and stayed in front of the cameras. Having savaged predecessor George Pataki for his seemingly lackadaisical response to the 9/11 attacks—“Pataki stood behind the leader,” he said at the time. “He held the leader’s coat … Cream rises to the top, and Rudy Giuliani rose to the top”—Cuomo seized control of the response. The storm saw the typically media-shy governor sitting down for interviews with several national television news hosts including Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer and Rachel Maddow. On the topic of the state’s crisis-response efforts, Cuomo couldn’t help but sound, well, presidential. And he received national attention when, sitting across from Sawyer, he boldly addressed the elephant in the room—if not quite by name.
“I think Al Gore is right,” Cuomo said, raising the specter of climate change. “We have a ‘100-year flood’ every two years now! I think, at this point, it is undeniable that we have a higher frequency of these extreme weather situations. We’re going to have to deal with it.”
And where the mayor tended to shrug his shoulders at certain problems he described as beyond his control, Cuomo displayed a touch of aggression. After utility companies suggested it might take 10 days or more to restore electricity in some areas, he dashed off a letter to their CEOs threatening to revoke their licenses to do business in his state—then released it to the media.
“This is not just about effort,” he said at a press conference announcing the move. “This is about getting the job done.”
Political prognostication is a more inexact science than even meteorology. But it seems altogether possible we will be seeing that clip again a few years down the road, if Cuomo takes on Christie in 2016, Bloomberg endorses someone or other, and Booker solves the global-warming crisis, reversing time itself by racing around the earth’s axis backward, really, really fast.