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How Sandy Changed The Campaign

Just a few days ago, Mitt Romney was heading into the race’s home stretch with a closing message about “bigness.” His campaign, he told voters, was about “big things” and “big answers” and “big change” while President Obama was consumed with “smaller and smaller” lines of attack, such as mocking his opponent’s “Romnesia” or “binders full of women.” It was a shrewd gambit, taken from the Obama 2008 playbook—an attempt to make Romney seem above it all, to make his supporters feel like they were part of something larger. There was just one problem with it: after a Romney campaign spent focused on small stuff such as playing the welfare card and, more recently, making up stuff about Jeep moving from Ohio to China, what, exactly, was this “big thing,” other than a phrase Romney strategist Stuart Stevens had urged his client to repeat over and over?

Well, now we have something big—a terrifying storm that has left the country's largest city incapacitated. And this big thing is, on one level, not at all helpful to Mitt Romney. A campaign striking for its relative stasis—both in the state-by-state landscape and the nature of the argument—has been turned on its head in the closing days, and how it affects the race probably depends on what stage one believes the race had arrived at by this point. If one believes that we were completely into the turnout phase, then the storm poses a bigger threat to Obama. As my colleague Nate Cohn has argued, the 2012 race really is about turnout, and specifically the turnout of Obama supporters—to the extent that Obama can make the final tally look more like the “registered voter” line in the polls, where he generally leads, rather than the “likely voter” line, where things are much tighter, he wins. From this standpoint, anything that makes voting less convenient is bad for the Democrats—this is why Republicans fight so aggressively against expanding early voting hours. And indeed, the storm has made things less convenient. In swing-state Virginia, for instance, in-person absentee voting was suspended in 26 cities and counties Monday, mostly in the Democratic vote-troves of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The biggest setbacks, of course, are in solidly blue New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, where there are serious questions about readiness for Election Day. Obama need not fear losing them, but to the extent turnout there is depressed, there is a greater chance for a 2000-style split, with Obama winning the Electoral College but losing the popular vote. Finally, there is the not-inconsiderable loss suffered in Obama having to cancel days of swing-state rallies, which are an integral part of the Obama turnout operation.

But to the extent that the race was still an open question, with some voters still making up their minds or willing to change them at the last instant, it is hard not to believe that the storm has helped the president. Put simply, it has brought the race back closer to first principles. For most of the year, Obama had successfully framed the election as a choice between two approaches, one favoring the Bain Capital upper crust, the other geared toward the broad middle—the 99 percent and, yes, the 47 percent. But then came Romney’s great Etch-a-Sketch moment in the Denver debate and his subsequent blurring of distinctions on everything from health care to tax cuts to foreign policy. After initially being caught off balance, Obama was finding a way to build the case that such a revision could not be trusted, and had, the more empirically-minded pundits agreed, brought Romney’s surge to a plateau where Obama still held a slight but crucial battleground edge.

Still, Sandy now allows Obama to close with a message that transcends the tiresome “who is the real Mitt Romney” question. The fact is, we can’t really know the answer to that question. All we can hope to know is what Romney would do given the circumstances he’s presented with. And the question of disaster relief brings into, well, clear relief. No, Romney probably would not shutter FEMA and devolve it to the states—that was a bit of pandering that, as I explained yesterday, fit the needs of the moment in more than one way. But he would be under great pressure from his party to follow through with a version of the budget proposal put forward by his running mate and supported by nearly every congressional Republican, which with its deep, deep cuts in discretionary spending would almost surely decimate the FEMA budget and even more surely would mean far less investment in the sort of public infrastructure left crippled by the storm. The candidates are running on two sharply different visions for government and, as Jonathan Chait noted today, there is nothing like a disaster to expose the fundamental flaw in the go-it-alone model. Remember, it was just a few months ago that Romney was mocking the call for hiring more firefighters. Once Obama returns to the trail in the final days, you can bet $10,000 on his drawing direct links between his year-long message about the need for "coming together" and the response to Sandy: "as we saw this past week..."

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Finally, the storm has exposed the hollowness at the core of the other half of Romney’s closing argument—that he, unlike Obama, will be willing to work with people on the other side of the aisle. The appeal of this line is also plain—one of the biggest disappointments of Obama’s first term has been his failure to end the capital's acrimony and gamesmanship. Anyone who has kept even half an eye on Washington knows the reasons for this—the Mitch McConnell vow and all it represents—but Romney’s message is geared toward the lowest of low-information voters who know only that it’s been nasty and assume that a Republican president would naturally put an end to this. (There is also one high-information columnist who seems to believe this.) But again, Sandy offers a concrete counterpoint to this empty promise. We see Obama cooperating with, and getting lavish praise from, none other than Romney’s convention keynote speaker, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, while Romney is off in Ohio hosting a campaign event in the guise of a dubious canned-food drive.  We’re reminded that the parties can actually come together when there is an agreement on the need to, well, govern. This surely helps the president with those few undecided swing voters who remain, or those few open to a rethinking. Now the only question is whether they, and his established supporters, will cast a ballot. It’s just extraordinary that, after a year-long campaign, the outcome—and the fate of a health care law insuring millions, and tax rates for the next decade, and so much more—will depend in part on the effect of a few days of lost early voting, scrambled schedules and transportation breakdowns. It all seems way too flukish, given the stakes.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis