John Baer: Was Sandy the real October surprise?

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President Barack Obama speaks during the his visit to the Disaster Operation Center of the Red Cross National Headquarter to discuss superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

BECAUSE WE LIVE in an age of information over-glut, causing too many Americans to live only in the moment, it's reasonable to ask if "Superstorm Sandy" decides next week's election.

Clearly, it will have an impact. It could be the ultimate October surprise.

I'm not talking about obvious stuff, such as canceled campaign events, unseen TV ads, fewer robo-calls, less door-to-door canvassing or even suspended early voting in the District of Columbia and Maryland.

I'm talking about the real and potentially important psychological effect across a broad swath of the eastern United States.

Do voters hit by Sandy forget, repress or ignore all that went before?

Do we not care if "you didn't build that"? No longer whine about the "47 percent"? Is Benghazi off the table? Are horses and bayonets, Big Bird and binders of women but meaningless memories?

Do individuals dealing with the storm's aftermath have diminished access to, or even interest in, voting?

Do voters already suffering in a sour economy and facing further pain from property loss simply deal with their own lives and leave the election to others?

And if the answer to the general premise posed here is "yes," can Mitt Romney or Barack Obama win the White House through an act of God?

Could be.

Maybe Obama's overseeing federal readiness and response elevates him, underscores his presidential demeanor and coolness under fire, and helps boost his assertion that big government is a plus.

Or maybe Romney benefits from any government screw-ups or sluggish reactions, and reminds America that, as he said during a GOP debate in June 2011, we should do away with Federal Emergency Management Agency by pushing its function down to the states or "even better" to the private sector.

(Romney aides now are quoted as saying that he thinks that states should manage emergency response with help from the federal government and FEMA and that the governor does not think that FEMA should be abolished. No mention of the private sector this time.)

But given that anything bad that happens at any level can get blamed on whoever's in charge - on whoever's seen sitting comfortably out of harm's way on the public dime - one could argue that Obama has more to lose here than Mitt.

Plus, think about this: it's estimated that 50 million people are impacted by the storm in solid or probable Obama areas such as Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Even if these jurisdictions and their combined 97 electoral votes remain in the president's column, their popular vote totals could drop far below what it would have been in the absence of Sandy.

This is especially so if power outages and school closings extend to Election Day.

And think about Pennsylvania.

The bulk of Obama's support lies in the hardest-hit southeast regions. If that vote doesn't show up Tuesday (if Obama's touted "ground game" is grounded) or shows up in significantly smaller numbers, Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes could go to Romney.

Mitt and Sandy, perfect together.

On the other hand, in the storm's wake and just days before the election, Obama will visit areas suffering the greatest damage, as he is scheduled to do starting Wednesday in New Jersey.

Not as a candidate but as the president; hard to criticize that.

Such visits can underscore Obama's edge over Mitt in the care-about-ordinary-folks and the overall-compassion departments.

They also can offer the image of a leader in command while Romney, at most, is relegated to visiting Red Cross shelters to encourage giving, lest he risk seeming to cash in on the suffering of others.

But however it all plays out, we might one day look back at Campaign 2012 and read about how it was decided by "The Psychology of Sandy."

 


Contact John Baer at baerj@phillynews.com. For his recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.