And the 2012 Election October Surprise is…Hurricane Sandy, aka Frankenstorm!

Who knew?

But then, that’s why they call it a surprise.

For some time now, ever since the Russians invaded Hungary and the English and French invaded Egypt on the eve of the 1956 presidential elections, the “October surprise” has been a staple of U.S. presidential politics. This time around, October is almost over, and so far, the best we’ve been able to do is a Donald Trump prize and some old Romney testimony from a divorce case. You can find the sordid details on the web if you wish…or you can get a life.

But nature, in the form of Hurricane Sandy, might just possibly fill the void.

First the serious business. Hurricane Sandy is tee-ing up to have possible major impacts along the U.S. Atlantic coast. This may prove to be a grave storm, packing high winds and heavy rains , and accompanying flooding. But don’t take my word for it. You can find the latest advisories here. Check in frequently with your local AMS broadcast meteorologists for updates. Review your family emergency plan with family members. Stock up on any needed supplies. Prepare for problematic travel and possible power outages, some of which may last for days. Those of us in the Mid-Atlantic states have been here before.

Live in the greater D.C. area? You should also touch base frequently with the Capital Weather Gang. They’re always insightful, and are now posting on a regular basis. I particularly liked Jason Samenow’s post from Thursday. He described four outcomes for this area: scenario (A) worst case, – direct hit (on Washington), severe impacts (30% chance); (B) – indirect hit, major impacts (N.B. this scenario also implies a direct hit, only north of here, say around New York or New Jersey) (45% chance); (C) glancing blow, minor impacts (but Massachusetts or Maine might still be hit) (20% chance); (D) out to sea, few impacts (5% chance). Nice characterization of the possibilities.

But wait. Aren’t hurricanes value-neutral? Doesn’t rain fall on the just and the unjust? [Readers are free to choose to associate Democrats and Republicans with either of these two categories.] How can Hurricane Sandy possibly influence national politics and the course of U.S. history?

Well it turns out that everything can be politicized these days, as residents of the swing states, bleary-eyed from answering robo-calls and fending off requests to participate in polls can attest. And this promises to be a close election, so that even small influences may tip the scales. So here are four notional political-impact scenarios, corresponding roughly to Mr. Samenow’s categories. [Hopefully readers can distinguish the occasional foray from the semi-earnest to the unabashedly light-hearted.]

Scenario A. A direct hit on Washington (or anywhere on the East Coast for that matter). Massive power outages, flooding, large populations driven to seek emergency shelter. President Obama has to drop his scheduled campaign activities for a few days in order to assume his role as Emergency-Manager-in-Chief. Governor Romney has to tread cautiously for the corresponding period. The polls start fluctuating wildly, and pollsters and journalists are unable to determine where things stand.

Here are some variants. Suppose that President Obama were to reach out to Governor Romney during such a contingency and suggest they tour the impacted regions together, to show that the American people and their circumstances matter more than politics. Think of the effect that would have on the national mood.

However, the confusion and uncertainty might prompt David Letterman to pose the question on the air:

Q: What’s the difference between a Presidential pollster and an Italian seismologist?

A: The Italian seismologist is behind bars.[1]

[Newscasts for the next several days would show pollsters shoved into police black-and-whites, until the producers of the forthcoming movie musical, Les Miserables, see a marketing opportunity and partner with the French government to provide a few tumbrels and a guillotine.]

Scenario B. Hurricane Sandy hits New York. This scenario, which Mr. Samenow sees most likely, also poses the greatest societal and political risk. Experts have been concerned for some time that the right storm making New York landfall at high tide might generate a storm surge that would inundate parts of the New York subway system. Wall Street might be forced to close a few days; the financial sector would shudder. Picture such a case, accompanied by power outages of such extent that they still pose a problem one week later, on election day itself. As before, the campaign is affected by such events, and now the Democrat-leaning demographic of New York is finding it difficult to get to the polls while the upstate Republican-leaning folks are relatively unaffected. [Similar outcomes could pertain under scenario A.] Neither party would passively accept such a swing for such cause; they’d be tempted to head for the courts. The uproar could make us hunger for the quiet, good-old-days when our worst problem was hanging chad. Note: [not forecasting: just saying.]

David Letterman might pose the question:

Q: What’s the difference between a political-party lawyer and an Italian seismologist?

A: The Italian seismologist is behind bars.

[Nothing would happen; we’re talking about lawyers here. But candidate Obama might roll back his proposed tax increase for the richest among us, claiming that those upper 0.1% of the country’s wealthiest, many of whom live in the Hamptons, “have suffered enough.”]

Scenario C. Hurricane Sandy touches New England. Again, impacts would be severe. We might see a recurrence of the some of the flooding and associated property loss and disruption triggered by Hurricane Irene in 2011. At worst, a repeat of the 1938 New England hurricane tragedy.

David Letterman might pose the question:

Q: What’s the difference between Bobby Valentine and an Italian seismologist?

A: The Italian seismologist is behind bars.

[Those New Englanders just can’t let it go.]

Scenario D. Hurricane Sandy veers out to sea. The country breathes a huge sigh of relief. The only whirlwind in evidence is political: the final week of the campaign. The candidates step up the pace of their shuttling from swing state to swing state.

Given the media hype on this storm, in the (5%) event it comes to nothing, David Letterman might pose the question:

Q: What’s the difference between a meteorologist and an Italian seismologist?

A: The Italian seismologist is behind bars.

TV coverage shows massive numbers of NWS employees being carted off.

But wait! Someone in charge remembers…there’s a restriction on federal travel! In the end, no more than fifty employees are allowed to go…

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2 Responses to And the 2012 Election October Surprise is…Hurricane Sandy, aka Frankenstorm!

  1. mwgrant says:

    DC metro denizen (MoCo). It is definitely getting more interesting here with Samenow’s last post. Thanks. I just hope we don’t provide JohnP ample material for his resilience blog.

    Your previous post on ‘stoning’ was good too–I can quite vividly see the little piles of rocks in my mind.

  2. Otter says:

    I live in SE Ontario, west of Buffalo (formerly of Pennsylvania). The last few days around here, I’ve heard mention of Hurrican Hazel (1954). I think people were honestly worried about this one for a bit. Being in a low-lying area, I am pleased to hear it will now (I hope?) come nowhere near us.

    Pleased to see another skeptic site, you are Added to my list!

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