The Amazing Race: How Hurricane Sandy Scrambled the Political Landscape

Illustration by Zina Saunders.

Barack Obama won a second term as president. But the biggest political player of the election cycle, it’s fair to say, was Hurricane Sandy, an 85 m.p.h. deus ex machina that provided a boost to Mr. Obama and gave Mitt Romney a steep hurdle to overcome as he headed into the home stretch. Karl Rove said so much himself on Friday, even as hard-hit communities were still without power.

“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,” he pointed out to The Washington Post. “When you have attention drawn away to somewhere else, to something else, it is not to his advantage.”

He would say that, of course. He had to say something, after all, to preemptively soften the blow for disappointed donors who had funded his months-long anti-Obama ad blitz to the tune of some $171.5 million. We thought it was in the bag, guys, but who can predict a hurricane?

Mr. Rove knows the game. He saw firsthand how an unexpected calamity can thoroughly alter the political landscape as well as the physical one. The 9/11 attacks offered President George W. Bush opportunities for optics both bad (My Pet Goat) and good (the Megaphone Moment). Years later, FEMA’s tragically failed response to Hurricane Katrina and Mr. Bush’s ill-conceived support for Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown seriously damaged his presidency. (Just in case we needed a reminder of that disaster, Mr. Brown appeared in the Globe and Mail just two days after Sandy hit, urging New Yorkers to “just chill.”)

Crass as it is to point out, when the dust settles, Sandy will have left more in her wake than 100 deaths and untold billions in damage. The storm also upended the political field, offering elected officials and hopefuls alike a sudden array of unexpected risks and opportunities, scrambling the ideological calculus, reconfiguring alliances and laying bare much of the established rhetoric (particularly as it pertains to climate change and the proper role of government). President Obama was offered a gimme—the chance to act as comforter-in-chief and to demonstrate the beneficence of the federal government, while Mitt Romney was relegated to the sidelines, at least when he wasn’t being asked about his past suggestion that we eliminate FEMA altogether.

Meanwhile, Governors Cuomo and Christie, both widely regarded as potential presidential candidates for 2016, were able to demonstrate their ability to lead in a crisis, and Mayor Bloomberg got to erase any lingering memories of his Bermuda sojourn during the so-called “Snowpocalypse” of 2010.If only it weren’t for that marathon misstep—advocated, someone made sure to inform The New York Times, by his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani—he’d have turned in a pitch-perfect performance himself.

All of them were working on instinct. On the national level, many years of careful preparation and billions spent on focus groups, push polls, talking points and microtargeting were suddenly gone with the wind. Even with the lights flickering, the optics became high-def: everyone went off-message—they had to—and suddenly what mattered was the human touch, bluster and reflexes.

And, of course, leadership. That thing people elect them for in the first place.

Sometimes it takes a perfect storm to blow away all that hot air.

The Amazing Race: How Hurricane Sandy Scrambled the Political Landscape