“October surprises” – designed to influence elections – are usually the work of Man not God. But “Frankenstorm” threw a wrench into the US presidential campaign even before hitting the eastern seaboard on Monday evening.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have cancelled rallies in some pivotal states. Whether Hurricane Sandy has a decisive impact on election day next Tuesday cannot be known, but it cannot be ruled out.

Conventional wisdom, not always wrong, holds that bad weather on election day helps the Republican party because its more affluent voters are more likely to brave the elements. After all, they are less likely to be reliant on public transport, which might be disrupted, than poorer Democrats.

One academic study that covered US elections in over 3,000 counties from 1948-2000 concluded that voter turnout fell almost one per cent for each inch of rain and by about 0.5 per cent for a similar amount of snow. If next Tuesday is as close as the polls predict, that could make a difference.

The study posited that worse weather in 1960 could have handed Richard Nixon seven more states with their 105 electoral college votes, which would have been enough to beat John F. Kennedy – though Republicans still mostly blame Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago for making off with ballot boxes.

Better weather might have given Florida to Al Gore in 2000, thus rendering hanging chads moot and a Supreme Court ruling unnecessary.

In New York, inept handling of the early 1969 blizzard cost the incumbent mayor, John Lindsay, the nomination of his Republican party in the primary. But he remained on the ballot as the local Liberal party candidate and won the mayoral election comfortably, long after the snow had melted.

But there is much less history to go by if catastrophic weather conditions are in force. In 1992, President George Bush was much slower off the mark than candidate Bill Clinton in responding to the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in Florida, as he also was when Los Angeles erupted in riots.

That tended to reinforce the impression that his head was in foreign, not domestic, affairs. His son did not cover himself with glory with Hurricane Katrina either, but he had already fought his last presidential election.

In this presidential election, much may now depend on how Mr Obama is perceived as handling this present emergency. In this, he is literally at the mercy of God because the scale of the threatened devastation is hardly under his control. Still, on balance, the upside potential probably outweighs the downside risk, so long as he does not emulate his predecessor over Katrina.

For his part, Mr Romney must presumably be seen not to carp. He has already been obliged to withdraw some negative advertising from the most affected states. Some of the super-Pacs that financially support him – including those controlled by Karl Rove and the industrial Koch brothers – might also be forced to consider whether incessant 30-second attack ads could be counterproductive.

The worst case scenario, of course, is that voting itself might be affected. Many states use electronic ballots, whose machines cannot function without power, which might still be lacking next Tuesday. While many allow early voting – already under way – in some cases polling stations are shuttered because of the storm.

Virginia is in the eye of both the meteorological and politic storms. Attention is being paid to a state law which allows the governor – the Republican Bob McDonnell – to postpone an election by up to 14 days in the event of a natural disaster.

If that happens, then Florida 2000 will have painful company, with the lawyers again out in force and all television may be given over to political commercials.

Long ago, Milwaukee’s baseball team had a simple formula for success: “Spahn and Sain (the names of star pitchers) and pray for rain.”

In their final innings, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both have reasons to pray for the latter, but preferably not too much of it.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article