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United States

Oct 30, 2012

Rundle: Sandy's winds of change bring hope for Obama

Hurricane Sandy's winds of change are bringing the "October Surprise" to this year's US presidential campaign, giving Obama a foot up as polls reveal his tight battle with Romney.

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So the storm’s coming in. Hurricane Sandy, that angry eye, winking out from the mid-Atlantic on every newscast, moving in slowly, making landfall in Jersey, where it threatens to do billions of dollars worth of improvement boomboom. Cue endless standup jokes about Hurricane Sandy (it’s really a storm but whatever) coming ashore at Atlantic City, and leaving six hours later with all its money gone, and its empty wallet stolen by a hooker. Boomboom.

Sandy, promising epic devastation, but, because it’s only a storm, people are responding more sluggishly than the authorities would prefer. Coney Island has been evacuated, the southern tip of Manhattan is a no-go zone, out here in Columbus, Ohio, rains are lashing us, the outer edge of a storm that now has a thousand-mile diameter. President Obama curtailed his campaign stops yesterday; Mitt Romney did the same today, facing the difficult choice — get the advantage while Obama does Presidenty stuff, or look like a tool for stumping in Dittoville, Iowa, while your opponent deals with life and death matters.

Sandy, an event that may or may not disrupt the whole electoral process, but which news-starved commentators are already dubbing 2012’s “October Surprise”, the traditional-as-Halloween last minute reversal in an election, now so awaited that it has become its opposite. No surprise is a surprise. Sandy, the storm, kids are already dressing as it for trick-or-treating, parents swirling paper around them. Sandy, the storm which may make Obama look presidential, or may interfere with the early voting he needs, or may stop white seniors from early voting in Virginia and thus stymie Romney’s victory in that state, or … well take any scenario you want.

Sandy, name of a woman I persuaded to leave her husband in the late ’90s. He was a recovering junkie, she was a rising novelist. They lived in Oval, a sinkhole of south London. God I was in love with her. How much? Her husband, who had struggled with incredible courage out of junkdom to sobriety, used to come out drinking with us. He stuck to orange juice. He was so determined to go straight — and so decent, at the eye of his own storm, that he told Sandy that if he ever lapsed, she should leave him immediately. Having heard that from her, it occurred to me at one point that if I slipped crushed codeine tablets into his OJ, he’d be back on the junk before you can say evilevilevil. In the midst of trying to prise her away from him, I had to tell the other woman I was encouraging to cheat her on her partner, that there was someone else. Boy, that’s a hard conversation. Thank god for voicemail.

It didnt work out with Sandy, but the intent is the thing. I thought I would burn in hell. Hell came early, like this year. Eh bien. The storm sends us all to the edges of our own lives. Sandy’s in Brooklyn now. She published two very good novels, a terrible memoir, and an overrated but very successful anti-novel-writing guide, written with the man she threw me over for again, when she became available, a decade later. Actually, that was soon after Obama was elected in ’08, in the bar of the Waldorf-Astoria. I left for Mexico later that day, paying airport price for a ticket. Arrived in Tijuana, took a bus down the coast to Mazatlan, where Kerouac and Ginsberg used to hang out. The Sinaloa cartel run the joint now, and the place was in lockdown. The military patrolled the streets in APCs, wearing balaclavas so the cartel wouldn’t identify them and kill their families. But that’s another story. The big story at the time was how the cartels were fixing local beauty pageants. Miss Sinaloa was arrested while driving with her boyfriend, who had four rocket-launchers in the boot of his car. She said they were travelling to Bolivia and Columbia to “go shopping”.

Yes, I digress, but let’s face it, you’re more intrigued than you would be by anything I or anyone could say about this election at this point, aren’t ye? Until Storm Sandy Converging Now*, this election had come to a final week of grinding it out, the thankless task of endless repetitive appearances at ever-smaller burgs of Ohio and Virginia, with a few detours elsewhere. For all the earnest science applied to the effect of advertising, ground-game, sign-up etc, no-one really knows what the effect of a presidential visit is on a campaign. So they keep checking in on places where it might make a difference, just in case. Obama was going to go up to Green Bay in north Wisconsin, until Sandy queered his plans. The event is keeping Mitt out of Virginia, a state he was hoping to consolidate over the final week.

The polls — well, the polls are all over the shop. Whatever happens out of this election, some polls will lose all credibility. Most polls put the national race at a tie, or give a one point lead to Obama, but there are two outliers. Rasmussen gives a two point lead to Romney, but since Rasmussen is always three points shifted to the Right, that accords with the general run of polls. The outlier is Gallup, which has consistently given Romney a five to seven point lead in the last month. Critics say that Gallup undercounts black and especially Hispanic voters. Gallup stands by its methods. But it was off the mark in 2008, and if it is wrong again, its credibility will be utterly shot.

Needless to say, the Right — which is now wary of Rasmussen’s consistent bias — has been running exclusively on Gallup’s serial releases. The degree to which partisan groups spruik favourable polls in the US is often mystifying to people from Westminster-style systems — where everyone tries to be the underdog — but the reason is obvious. You have to convince people in swing states that their candidate is in with a chance overall  — at which point, getting out to vote state-by-state becomes a matter of life and death. It’s one reason why Rasmussen is so happy for its polls to run consistently above temperature (and for a rival but more explicitly partisan Democratic outfit PPP to run the other way), as cheerleader.

For Barack Obama, the storm presents one great advantage — by its very nature, it foregrounds the notion of collective endeavour, rather than individual activity. Furthermore, and even more dangerously for Romney, it emphasises the necessary role of the state, and especially the federal state, in doing something that is beyond the scope of the market or the local. That would be common sense, right? Well, uh, not so much for the Republicans. Here’s Romney from a CNN debate in June 2011, when asked if FEMA should be stripped of most of its funding and powers:

 “Absolutely … Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep? … We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardising the future for our kids … It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts …”

This if course was “severely conservative” Mitt Romney, pandering to the Tea Party and the Ayn Randies upon whom he depended for the Republican nomination. The quote is now playing across the mediasphere, and may have come off the leash as fast as the storm itself. How will the Democrats handle it? There is no chance that Obama himself will speak to it, but will surrogates — Biden, et al — hammer it home? It’s a dicey situation, but it’s arguable that it is worth the risk, to really push the message — and to add, as a bonus, that VP candidate Paul Ryan’s budget included a defunding of FEMA, before its more extreme provisions were knocked on the head by party elders.

Sandy converging now may be a piece of very bad news for the Republicans indeed. Though they have good reason to be chipper, with some worrying state polling for the Obama campaign — when Minnesota has come into a mere 4% Democratic lead, Pennsylvania 4% and Wisconsin 2.5%, well, all those are still clear enough margins, but mighty closer than they have been in the past — their strategy suggests that they too believe that the advantage still lies with the Democrats.

The latest ad in Ohio has been one accusing Obama of being responsible for Chrysler outsourcing Jeep production to China — except Chrysler didn’t, it established a factory in China to produce for the Chinese market. The lie was so blatant that even Chrysler put out a statement disputing it. The conventional wisdom of such ads, which would never survive in places with greater supervision of election claims, is that the advantage gained is greater than the eventual hit to credibility. It’s not the sort of thing a more confident campaign would do.

On the other hand, the Romney campaign is also running a series of softer ads, trying to appeal to disillusioned ’08 Obama voters, assuaging their guilt for switching: “You believed. He tried. He failed.” It directly contradicts other ads, many of them from SuperPACs etc, suggesting that Obama was all but intent on wrecking the economy, but the theory is that different ads appeal to different groups, and don’t necessarily cancel each other out. And if you can find a thousand voters with each ad, you’re doing well.

Well, 9pm on the eastern seaboard, and Atlantic City is underwater now, as, usually, are most of its visitors. The waves are lapping at Battery Park, at the edge of Manhattan. But in precincts across the country, the campaign goes on. It’s an ill wind that scatters us all, the wind of history, my friends, of history, do you hear me, above the raging torrents? It will blow someone good, who, we will know next Tuesday. Maybe …

*oh come on, high five, high five…

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