The massive hurricane bearing down on the eastern seaboard has disrupted both presidential campaigns. Mitt Romney cancelled trips to Virginia and New Hampshire and President Obama missed a trip to Florida in order to attend to the emergency. Some think the storm will depress voter turnout in early voting and on Election Day, potentially hurting Obama’s re-election effort more than it damages Romney.
But to the extent that the federal response to the hurricane showcases President Obama in the role of executive responder in this crisis, it may work out in his favor. As political scientists Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra argue in a recent article, “voters reward the incumbent presidential party for delivering disaster relief spending” — though they do not seem so fond of disaster preparedness spending. Danespite the irrationality in this attitudinal mismatch, the electorate is likely to warm to Obama’s actions and words in the past 24 hours:
To the extent that the symbolic meaning of the president’s leadership in this emergency triggers voter reflection on the campaign’s central philosophical question — the proper role of the federal government — the event also has the potential to enhance the president’s case for re-election.
Contrasting visions of the candidates’ views of government were evident during the party conventions earlier this fall. Here is what President Obama had to say:
“We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system — the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known.
But we also believe in something called citizenship — a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”
Compare this theme of collective responsibility and of the role of government in helping to solve national challenges with the decentralized individualism of the Republican ticket. Here is Republican vice presidential contender Paul Ryan, the libertarian Ayn Rand acolyte, who expressed gives clear expression to this message:
“We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families and to communities.”
With Mitt Romney’s apparent preference for letting states and localities handle emergencies, and Obama’s insistence on a more muscular federal role, the aftermath of Sandy could illustrate the effectiveness of coordinated recovery efforts and make Romney and Ryan’s “we don’t trust the government” line sound less and less appealing to an electorate in need of assistance. And since fully 60 million Americans are in Sandy’s path today, demonstrating the efficacy of federal government action could make a big difference on November 6.
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie