"Ready for dinner"
With just two days to go before the election, it seems one side may already be making preparations for a defeat. While many of the pundits on today’s Sunday morning political chat shows insisted the race was too close to call, others agreed that President Obama has the edge. That’s certainly what the math and the tea leaves lead us to believe. And it seems some Republicans are already preparing for defeat by trying to control the story of what went wrong. Essentially: Blame Sandy.
“The hurricane is what broke Romney’s momentum … I don’t think there’s any question about it,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, told CNN’s “State of the Union.” Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, is one of his party’s savviest strategists and a key behind-the-scenes player.
Meanwhile, Karl Rove told the Washington Post that the storm turned out to be the real “October surprise.” “If you hadn’t had the storm, there would have been more of a chance for the Romney campaign to talk about the deficit, the debt, the economy. There was a stutter in the campaign. When you have attention drawn away to somewhere else, to something else, it is not to his [Romney’s] advantage,” Rove explained. Rove, with his deep-pocketed American Crossroads groups, is one of his party’s savviest strategists and a key behind-the-scenes player (see a pattern here?).
Then there’s Ed Gillespie, another savvy behind-the-scenes GOP strategist, who now works for the Romney campaign. Today, he actually praised the Obama administration’s response to the storm on ABC’s “This Week,” saying, “We’ve heard from the governors … there’s a good working relationship between the state and the federal government.” He also hinted that Obama may have gained politically from the storm. This is from a campaign that has never praised anything Obama has ever done, and it would not be hard to poke the administration over fuel shortages or other lingering problems in the wake of Sandy. Gillespie could be uneasy about going too negative in the wake of a tragedy, but that certainly didn’t stop the Romney campaign after the attacks in Libya. Or it could be an attempt to build up the storm and the administration’s response.
And we knew this was coming. On Thursday, Politico’s Mike Allen, who, say what you will about him, has stellar access to senior operatives, reported that Republicans are already laying the groundwork for scapegoating the storm. “You’re already hearing Republicans hint that if Mitt Romney loses, that he’ll blame the storm. The people around him will cite that as a cause, that they had momentum, but it stopped cold,” he said on MSNBC.
This effort to define the postmortem narrative is far more than, as TPM’s Josh Marshall wrote, “CYA,” cover your ass for pundits who predicted a big Romney win and are now preparing to eat crow. Rather, there’s something of greater significance than pundits’ reputations on the line here. If Romney loses, the debate will immediately shift to defining why, and whatever narrative takes hold could set the tone for Obama’s second term, should he win one.
Republicans are trying to make this the thumbnail story of the campaign: Romney was winning heading into the closing stretch until a freak superstorm (not at all connected to global warming, of course) the week before the election turned things around for Obama. Basically, Obama got lucky. If they can succeed in making that definition stick, then it completely dismisses the substance of the campaign and undermines Obama’s mandate for governance in a second term. If Obama only won because of bad weather and good timing, Republicans can tell themselves and the American people, then we can’t really take his win as a rejection of Republican tax policy or Mitt Romney’s dishonesty, or an endorsement of Obamacare and reproductive rights. Instead, the storm narrative puts an asterisk next to an Obama win, sowing doubt and diminishing the significance as if the hurricane were a performance enhancing drug.
Meanwhile, for the darker fringes of the movement, who have sought for years to not only defeat Barack Obama but completely invalidate him, the storm narrative provides comfort and a convenient explanation. He had no business getting elected the first time, but stole the election with the help of ACORN and unions, and this time he got lucky again with a hurricane. It wasn’t a “real” win, so he’s still not a “real” president, as Donald Trump always says.
Of course, partisans always try to do this after a major loss, pointing to a tactical error or an act of God or dirty trickery to avoid confronting where they themselves may have gone wrong. In 2008, conservatives blamed John McCain’s loss on Sarah Palin, thus absolving McCain and his policies. In 2004, Democrats said John Kerry lost the election when he failed to effectively respond to the Swift Boat smears. In 2000, it was electoral shenanigans in Florida.
In all of these cases, there’s some truth — Palin did cost McCain votes, Kerry’s initial silence on the Swift Boats was devastating, etc. — but these blunders in a vacuum were hardly decisive (except for perhaps in 2000). And there’s probably some truth to the hurricane narrative. While it may be crass to say, the storm has helped Obama “look presidential,” and earned him support beyond his party from Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Independent New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
But would Obama have won without it? Almost certainly. Before Sandy, Obama had steady, if small, leads in more than enough swing states to win, while Romney had very few options to get to 270. As Marshall notes, taking a deep dive into the numbers: “The big picture is that there’s simply no polling data to support the Sandy Unicorn theory. There has been some trend back to Obama in critical swing states like Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. Small. But all the margins are so small that small changes can matter. Yet those too predate Sandy.”
So the big danger is if the media adopts the Republican narrative and then it becomes the accepted conventional wisdom that Obama merely got lucky. If that happens, then the storm, which may have given Obama a small boost in the short-term, could prove to be a haunting shadow for years.
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.More Alex Seitz-Wald.