Rain is lashing Ohio tonight -- the outer edges of what remains of Hurricane Sandy are sending driving wind and rain, slate grey skies across the state. It's bad news for trick-or-treaters, or for their parents more likely. The kids will force them out in all weather for that sweet, sweet candy. Halloween is huge here, an all-encompassing celebration drawing in not only kids, but adults as well.
The holiday has become a time for all to experience a little derangement, a free pass. Usually, it's the weekend before, with parties everywhere. Used to be it was a continuation or revival of the old fancy dress parties, which largely died out in the '60s. But then it started to get weird. Zombie walks, werewolf rampages -- pub crawls in character, hundreds shambling along the dark streets.
I went to one in West Palm Beach before I left Florida. Everyone had gone all out. The level of work put into pretending to be a member of the undead was phenomenal. At the end of the party, there was a Carrie-style prom, with prizes. It was eventually won by a vampire Fidel Castro, which I think had no point other than that Fidel is tall and thin, but you never know.
Why the notion of the undead in its various forms has become a near obsessive element in contemporary culture is a topic for another day. Oh OK, just a little here. The undead become an obsessive symbol of modernity when social and cultural possibility appears to have ground to a halt, and the prospect of real transformation has disappeared. Zombiedom.
But now Halloween has been cancelled for millions of kiddies and kidults, as a superseding horror, Hurricane Sandy, has become clear. Inland there's been no real damage. On the coast, from Jersey and up to New York, the devastation has been phenomenal. Large sections of the heavily-populated Jersey Shore remain underwater. Inland whole regions are without power and queues at gas stations are more than a mile long.
Hardest hit have been some areas of the New York megalopolis, which is really a single conurbation from mid-Jersey through Long Island, and across to Long Island. Hoboken, across the Hudson from Manhattan, is without power, all the shops are closed, and the mayor just made a TV appeal for people to bring food and fuel to central shelters. Meanwhile on Manhattan, the city has been split in two -- there's no power below around 40th street, meaning that nearly half the island is in the dark.
The flooding is immense elsewhere, and draining the cities will take weeks. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people remain trapped in their homes, with dwindling food and supplies. The sheer size of the disaster is testing the resources of local authorities and the states -- and there have started to be questions about how the actual elections will take place in these areas. Of course, all the areas hit are heavily Democratic, but the disaster once again exposes the ramshackle nature of the US voting system.
What's to be done if voting is difficult or impossible for thousands? Well, uh, no one knows. Voting in national elections is done state-by-state and in some states, county-by-county. Indeed there's no absolute requirement to have the vote on November 6 at all -- states are merely required to choose their electors, the faceless half-dozen or so who will actually cast a presidential vote.
It's another reminder, together with the looming potential of a popular/electoral college split, of the utterly archaic nature of the US electoral system, lumbering forward like, well, a zombie across the tundra, not dead, but nor is it a living thing. In the interim a whole lot of weird stuff is going on.
The storm has thrown the election every which way but loose. The disaster is not so all-encompassing as to involve the whole country, yet the areas it has hit are so densely populated, and so essential to the economy, that it cannot be treated as a merely local matter. This week, before the squall hit, the Romney camp had been steaming ahead, hell-bent on opening the map. They had already drawn in Wisconsin, thanks to Paul Ryan being a local boy, and there had been mutterings about Pennsylvania and Michigan. The latter two were widely taken as a bluff, since no serious amount of money was being spent there, and most of what was was designed to shore up local candidates, with a little presidential oomph.
"... just as the Republicans were opening up their strategy on a larger canvas, they've been hit by the Frankenstorm shambling towards them -- Hurricane Sandy, which has taken Obama off the campaign trail, but put him right in the centre of the news."
But this week, it became clear that Obama's numbers were coming in, in these states -- to around 5% and 4%, Pennsylvania and Michigan respectively. Given that the polls have never dipped below those numbers, and have never shown chance of a Romney victory, most see this as simply the thinning of a vote in states that Obama will nevertheless take unquestionably.
In starting to put some money into these areas, and in holding a series of personal appearances there, the Romney camp is taking a bet on one possibility -- that polls are systemically skewed in Obama's favour by a whole series of polling effects, and that these states are really within 1-2% of victory.
They're also cognisant of a potential saturation effect. In swing states like Ohio, every network ad between 6pm and 8pm is a political one, and so are a fair few on the 20 or so "basic cable" stations that flesh out the viewer's options. No one really knows if there is a saturation effect , but it seems a reasonable general rule of life to impose on the situation.
Indeed there may even be a reversal effect -- people who see the same ad umpteen hundred times may become so pissed off with the process that they disengage. No one really knows, and there is simply too much money, so some of it must be slaked off in areas where victory is possible but unlikely.
Thus Republicans have now spent $10 million in Pennsylvania, and $5 million in the areas of Minnesota not already covered by Michigan media markets, and around $9 million in Michigan itself. They would need to do a lot more in the next few days to really bring these states into play, but it's worth remembering that that is only the presidential money, and there's a lot more soft money behind that.
However, just as the Republicans were opening up their strategy on a larger canvas, they've been hit by the Frankenstorm shambling towards them -- Hurricane Sandy, which has taken Obama off the campaign trail, but put him right in the centre of the news, touring emergency shelters in New Jersey, talking to the nation, as thuh Prezident.
With him has been New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has gone out of his way to praise the President's response, involvement, etc, etc. That is not the message the Republicans really want to give out, but what can they do.
Christie, for his part, is presenting himself has nothing other than a bipartisan gotta-do-what-one's-gotta-do etc. It has nothing to do with a nap bet that Romney has lost it, and that being the guy who was beside the Prez in '12 would make you the man for 2016. In those circumstances, and if he could beat down the Christian Right, candidate Christie could re-colour the map.
To which everyone is saying hmmm. Christie was notorious for giving an opening speech at the Republican Convention that was short on Mitt Romney, and long on Christie. As Romney's numbers widened, Christie kept his head down. Now he is suddenly out, with his arm around Obama, the two of them like a biracial Laurel and Hardy act, and killing the notion that big government is bad government.
Contrast Romney's earlier statement that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be downstreamed to the states and then to the private sector -- by default, what happened in Katrina -- with the Obama era.
That has come at the same time as Romney is running into big trouble with his Ohio ad
, saying that Chrysler was shipping Jeep production to China. Both the head of Chrysler and of General Motors have come out to say that this is false; when the Republicans doubled-down on the ad, a spokesperson for GM
said that the Republicans had "entered a parallel universe". That statement has begun to bleed through into the mainstream news, and thus providing free publicity against itself.
US parties play fast and loose, but there's a limit, and Romney, in desperation may have hit it. Faced with the saturation effect of ad quantity, they've had to up the ad quality, to sheer lies and hysteria, in the hope that the effect will be greater than the blowback.
The Romney camp unleashed the monster to wander across the Ohio landscape. But the Democrats have the weather, with Prosper Obama and his tubster Caliban wandering round the enchanted isle, rich and strange, and all that was solid melting into furious air, as, as I write, the cold dark streets of Columbus filling with tiny goblins, ghouls, superboys and wonder girls all looking for a little sugar ...