As political analysts in the United States and around the world reflect on President Obama’s commanding election victory, they are certain to discuss the unexpected event which served as a distinguishing moment of the campaign: Hurricane Sandy and the disaster she wrought on the United States. Just days before the election, millions were left without power, thousands of homes were destroyed, and over one hundred people were pronounced dead along the Eastern seaboard and Northeast. At a time when campaign attacks were at their most brutal, Sandy proved indifferent to the upcoming election. Her victims were rich and poor, white and black, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat. Sandy’s landfall came in the middle of one of the most highly contested presidential races in history, with the past four years characterised by unparalleled political polarisation. Sandy seemed to cut through the divisive political rhetoric and facilitate bipartisan cooperation, something that seemed near impossible as the election loomed.
For a few short days, the divided electorate was distracted from the imminent election as they paused to contemplate the task of rebuilding the affected cities and towns. News cycles were focused on the storm and its destruction as both candidates halted their campaigns. Consequently, the Romney campaign lost media coverage as the country focused on President Obama in his role as Responder-in-Chief rather than as a presidential candidate.
President Obama immediately dispatched the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the states of New York and New Jersey to provide disaster relief. FEMA, an agency that was created in order to coordinate response to a disaster when local and state resources are overwhelmed, received huge criticism for its response during Hurricane Katrina. In a 2011 Republican primary debate, Mr. Romney proposed cutting funding for FEMA, stating “we cannot afford to do these things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.” When questioned about the role of FEMA after Hurricane Sandy touched down on the East Coast, Mr. Romney restated his belief that disaster relief should be left to states and to the private sector. Mr. Romney’s adherence to this policy seemed awkward, especially as his fellow Republicans pleaded for government assistance, and the states’ crippled infrastructures were too damaged to remain self-sustaining.
The storm turned foe to friend, forcing cooperation between political adversaries. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, an outspoken critic of the President, applauded President Obama for his attentive and swift response to the devastation in the Garden State, the area hit hardest by the storm. When asked on Fox News how his positive remarks in favor of President Obama could swing potential voters, Mr. Christie responded curtly,
I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff… I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the Shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”
Mr. Christie showed clear disdain for the politicization of a clearly non-political event, and expressed scorn at the attempt of a media outlet to cast a disaster in a partisan light.
Some observers may suggest that Sandy swayed the election in President Obama’s favor, arguing that the storm thwarted Mr. Romney’s momentum, giving the President an advantageous boost in the polls. However, state level polls show that President Obama’s lead was widening for weeks before the storm. Rather, Sandy gave the President a chance to prove his theory that the federal government can, and should, provide critical relief when disaster strikes. Hurricane Sandy’s legacy should not be remembered as a storm that altered the election, but rather as a harbinger of hope for a new era of bipartisan cooperation.