Starting in July of 2012, smart people called the election of November for President Barack Obama, barring some nasty "October Surprise." Instead, the October Surprise was for the challenger, Mitt Romney. A hurricane hit the eastern coast of the US and by the time it reached the American media center of New York City, it was no longer a hurricane so they created a new category, a "superstorm" and proceeded to blame it on global warming.
The overt message became, if you want more people to die in hurricanes, vote for the party that doesn't want cap and trade on CO2. Disasters are good for presidents, they give an opportunity for the president to look presidential. But the race was never in doubt. Even a European betting service got every state result correct the day before the election and no one outside Fox News believed Romney had a chance. So pundits who tried to pin the loss in part on Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy are just rationalizing. No one who was going to vote for Obama or Romney likely changed their minds because of Think Progress claiming Republicans cause all bad weather.
"Results suggest that immediately following positive news coverage of Obama's handling of the storm's aftermath, Sandy positively influenced attitudes toward Obama, but that by Election Day, reminders of the hurricane became a drag instead of a boon for the president, despite a popular storyline to the contrary," said Joshua Hart, assistant professor of psychology at Union College and author of a new paper on the subject in Social Science Research.
Two days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall Oct. 29, Hart began surveying likely voters. While the methodology was not rigorous, surveys of nearly 700 voters, half each day who were asked to think about the hurricane before reporting their voting intentions, for social psychology it was as good as any other method that relies on student surveys.
Prior to the positive news coverage for Obama on Oct. 31, there was no influence of Sandy reminders on Obama's vote share. This was also true on Nov. 1, the day after his well-publicized embrace with New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie while touring the Jersey Shore. It was that appearance in particular that angered Romney supporters since Christie is a Republican.
Obama did receive a slight bump in support from study participants on Nov. 2 and 3, who thought about Sandy before reporting their voting intentions, but by Election Day, this trend reversed, when news coverage of the storm shifted and became more negative, focusing on loss of life, lingering damage and power outages.
"The data suggest that people going to the polls Nov. 6 with the hurricane on their mind would have been less inclined to vote for Obama," Hart concludes counter-intuitively.
Obama won as predicted, taking 26 states and collecting 332 electoral votes, almost no races were really even in question outside television networks. Obama received 51.1 percent of the popular vote to Romney's 47.2 percent. Since it is quite rare, outside a strong third-party candidate campaign, for a candidate to get less than 47 percent, by getting the bare minimum popular vote, Romney's performance was a disappointment in a year when Republicans felt that the problems plaguing the president's first term, both economic and in foreign policy, could have led to a win.
While numerous liberal outlets insisted global warming and the storm is why Obama won, Romney disagreed. "I don't think that's why the president won the election," Romney told Fox News, instead blaming his own "47 percent" comments and his inability to connect with minority voters.
Six months later, he changed his tune and told CNN, "I wish the hurricane hadn't have happened when it did because it gave the president a chance to be presidential and to be out showing sympathy for folks."
Hart recognizes his unrepresentative sample doesn't reflect the whole of the story on Sandy's effect in the 2012 race, just that the results say more about the pundits than the voters. Media outlets that campaign against Republicans will grasp at anything to spur Democrats to get out and vote while Republicans didn't want to concede their message was not very good.
"It depends on a number of variables and the effect may change over even shorter stretches of time. Yet pundits tend to seize on certain 'laws' such as presiding over a disaster makes an incumbent look presidential. But each event like Sandy deserves to be studied as a unique occurrence to help answer questions about the impact of unpredictable, large-scale events as they unfold."
In trying to determine whether or how an event affects elections, Hart says that it is important to use experimental approaches to test the influence of "priming," or activating thoughts of different topics, on voters' attitudes, in addition to more traditional polling methodology.