At the time of writing, Hurricane Sandy is battering the US’s eastern seaboard with devastating effect to the region’s people and, potentially, the country’s politicians.
It is a nation on a knife edge. Opinion polls had been showing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney neck-and-neck in the final sprint to the White House. And then Hurricane Sandy arrived, presenting potentially the biggest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005.
There is an established concept in US elections known as the ‘October surprise’ – an unexpected event on the eve of the presidential election has a major impact on voters. But there have been few shocks on the scale of Sandy.
Ironically, the disaster shifts the ball firmly into Obama’s court. As never before in his four years as President, he is required to show strong and effective leadership to pull the nation through a crisis. But we will have to wait a few days to see how the nation judges his crisis response.
Until Sandy struck, it had been a hard-fought campaign without an obvious winner.
Romney fared better than expected in the televised debates, with Obama failing to fully recover from the first bout, when the Republican candidate landed some powerful blows.
The print media seem split down the middle with liberal commentators naturally favouring Obama, and more pro-business media backing Romney.
However, in the emerging campaigning battleground of social media, Obama has a definite edge. Since 2008, when Obama’s campaign used Facebook to mobilise younger and ethnic demographics, his team has been building this momentum.
Obama has 21.5 million followers to Romney’s 1.5 million on Twitter, where the chatter is largely mocking of the challenger, attacking his wealth and his previous opposition to investing in federal disaster funding. Obama has also used micro-blogging sites such as Tumblr to engage effectively with younger voters.
Nevertheless, one senses that this election will come down to leadership and character. Obama could establish himself as the nation’s ‘Churchill’, instilling a Dunkirk spirit. Or he could suffer like George W Bush following Hurricane Katrina, slammed for lack of preparation and mismanagement.
Romney can only sit and observe this critical comms exercise. The stakes could not be higher.