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In politics, stuff happens to make things more unpredictable

Back in September, United States presidential candidate Mitt Romney was trailing President Barack Obama by a long stretch. At that time, most political pundits were writing Romney off because no candidate in recent history has ever won from as far behind as he was at that point.



Then "stuff" happened on October 3 at the first presidential debate. The typically articulate president seemed to have fallen asleep at the podium. That unquantifiable event changed the trajectories of the 2012 campaign. Mitt Romney surged from his low ebb to become a more credible contender, with a chance of winning, and his momentum has not stopped since.

Until more "stuff" took place, this time in the form of a "perfect storm" by the name of Sandy.

Sandy needs no introduction. Technology allows the whole world to follow the path of "perfect storm" Sandy and the devastation it has caused to the northeast of the US, just like in a video game.

The world has seen the gigantic storm cause a surge of flood water over 4 metres high, heard the howling and sustained wind that has felled trees, caused explosions in transformers, sparked fires, swept cars away, and shaken a 110-foot-tall lighthouse first opened in 1796. The debris is over 2 metres high in places, the ocean is in the roads and tunnels, and cities are darkened. On top of all that, there is heavy snowfall.

TV viewers could not take their eyes off the image of a partially collapsed crane dangling precariously atop a 90-storey, US$1.5 billion luxury condominium in the middle of New York City, the danger looming over busy streets. People were evacuated from the area below as millions of rubbernecking onlookers held their breath. To make the episode more titillating for the rest of the world is the fact that units in this building, when finished, will go from a base price of $17 million up to $90 million.

Just one week away from the US presidential election on November 6, Sandy wreaked havoc not only on land but in the political race that is closer than the term "mathematical tie" may describe.

Both candidates were forced to cancel their last campaign schedules for three precious days in heavily contested swing states. Sandy altered the tone of the rhetoric of the candidates, and it complicates enormously any effort to predict or control the voter turnout. Some would say that this super storm has warped an election two years and $2 billion in the making.

To many Obama supporters, Sandy is a Godsend. It allows the president to look and behave presidential. Obama, on his part, has played the Sandy hand well, and has not disappointed. He has appeared calm and collected, organised and reassuring.

The storm of the century, Sandy also reminds people how much they rely on the government. It has perhaps forced Mitt Romney to swallow his own message that the market can and will solve everything. More importantly, one of Romney's most ardent supporters - Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey - has come out over the last few days to unconditionally praise the president on his handing of the catastrophe.

While the president sat with the head of FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Agency - in its "war room" called the National Response Coordination Centre, discussing rescue and recovery measures, Mitt Romney had to turn his rallies elsewhere into fund-raising events for victims of the storm. Romney once called FEMA "immoral" in an age when the US national debt is skyrocketing, but his campaign has now claimed that he did not want to abolish FEMA. This contradicts the candidate's earlier stance of shifting the responsibilities of disaster response and management from the federal government to states and, even better, to the private sector.

It is clear that the storm's economic effects will be immense. It is too early to forecast with any certainty how large the bill will be, but it's estimated at between $35 billion and $100 billion. The cost of rebuilding public infrastructure, damaged private properties and businesses, and of the two frozen trading days on Wall Street, are just a few of the pricey items. When everything is accounted for, Sandy could prove to be one of the costliest natural disasters in US history. It could shave more than 0.2 per cent off the country's GDP. Paying the bill for this "unthinkable devastation" will prove at best an onerously daunting task.

Luckily, neither of the two presidential campaigns will have to deal with the severity of the post-storm effects right now. The more immediate problem is how to make the best of the last four days of the campaign. Sandy has thrown a monkey wrench into the election. It could be the ultimate vote-suppressor in a year when every vote, won or lost, counts. It makes opinion polling almost impossible to tell which way the political wind is blowing. There is no way to know if the mad dash by both candidates to swing states can save the day, or if there are any more minds to be changed.

A storm and an election have one thing in common - they are the epitome of randomness. No matter how precise or advanced the tracking technology and methodology has become, the best technology cannot predict exactly which way a storm or an election will actually turn.

President Obama said in a recent interview that the election "would take care of itself on November 6" and the wellbeing of affected Americans must be front and centre of his attention. As much as politics is as tempestuous as a storm, in this "Sandy election" the real veracity of the storm will be felt on polling day.


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