Frank Rich on the National Circus: Why Sandy Didn’t Change the Race

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Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Sandy's impact on the race, Chris Christie's non-endorsement endorsement, and Romney's and Obama's concession speeches.

In addition to everything else, Hurricane Sandy knocked the presidential race off the top spot in the news cycle for the entire pre-election week. Conventional wisdom is that the storm boosted Obama. Do you agree?
The new WSJ-NBC News poll shows whopping approval numbers for Obama’s handling of the storm, but until today's Gallup tracking poll, no survey had revealed a wild swing in the horserace from the numbers as they stood pre-Sandy. Romney supporters are fond of theorizing that if it hadn’t been for Sandy, Benghazi could have led the news and morphed into a major scandal that would have brought Obama down. But there’s still no evidence that voters care a whit about foreign policy this year, scandalous (or pseudo-scandalous) or otherwise, no matter how angrily John McCain rants about it. (And besides, Romney had already booted away Benghazi as a campaign issue with his stumble in the second debate.) You could also argue that Sandy helped Romney a little by slightly muting the coverage of his egregious campaign ad lying about Chrysler’s nonexistent plans to move Jeep jobs to China. In any event, Romney did himself no favors by trying to fight his way back into the Sandy narrative by frantically rebranding a campaign event in a swing state little affected by the storm (Ohio) as a patently phony “relief” stunt. A photo op of him collecting canned goods hundreds of miles away from the devastation made him look like a small-town Rotary Club president, not a POTUS.

The storm also blew in two unexpected endorsements for Obama — Mike Bloomberg's and, in spirit if not in words, Chris Christie's. Do you think either man's praise had an effect on the race?
Bloomberg is a much bigger figure to NYC and the N.Y./Beltway media (more than a few of its minions in his employ) than he is to the rest of the country. And his tone-deaf tardiness in canceling the marathon may have neutralized his damning-with-faint-praise endorsement of Obama in any case. But Christie was utterly fascinating. As was also true in the convention keynote where he mentioned Mitt as an afterthought, Christie gives every indication of believing that the GOP will be looking for a new standard bearer in 2016 and that he'd better waste no time in reporting for duty. As for 2012, the vivid images of the Christie-Obama bromance were invaluable for the president, as much as anything Christie said. The contrast in this odd couple’s race and body types alone seemed liked a Hollywood casting director’s dream, and the ravaged seaside setting could not have been more romantic. These are just the kind of bipartisan tableaus that are said (by establishment pundits and the self-styled “centrists” of Morning Joe at least) to warm the hearts of independents. And even when Christie clarified on Sunday that he was still voting for Romney, he managed to turn it into another warm endorsement of Obama’s leadership. 

Christie's kind words for Obama have particularly rankled Republicans. But couldn’t this have been merely a governor putting aside partisanship and rising to his moment (and, of course, making damn well sure we knew about it)?
Republicans are right to be rankled. Whatever Christie’s motives, one thing is certain: It’s hard to imagine he would have been behaving this way at this late date if he thought Romney was going to win. Bloomberg’s endorsement is just as obviously an indicator that the mayor has pegged Mitt for a loser.

Romney has made a much-hyped late play for Pennsylvania even though almost all polls point to a clear Obama victory there. Is Mitt simply out of options? Or does he know something that we (and Nate Silver) don't?
Aside from one outlier poll in Pittsburgh, there is no evidence that Pennsylvania is in play. We’ll find out soon enough. I buy the conventional wisdom that this is a desperate attempt to find a backup state should Mitt lose Ohio, a state which has been essential to every GOP presidential candidate’s electoral college victory. This year various Romney factotums (and Karl Rove) are claiming Romney can be a history-making anomaly and still win if he loses Ohio, and so Pennsylvania must be repurposed as a swing state to justify that fictional scenario. But a telling revelation of what the right really believes when it’s not spinning can be found in today’s New York Post, which is essentially one long Romney campaign pamphlet. In its hopeful compilation of “five possible paths to victory for Romney,” all five require a GOP victory in Ohio, including the single path that fantasizes about a win in Pennsylvania.

Is there something Romney could have done in the last week to recapture his post-Denver momentum? Or did the storm simply leave him with no good late options?
If the polls are accurate, Romney’s momentum (which could also be called the inevitable tightening of the race) had ended before Sandy struck. If he had good options in the final stretch, he would not have put up that Jeep ad, would not be appropriating “change” as a slogan, and would not be wasting time and money in Pennsylvania.

If Romney loses, what will he say in his concession speech?
It will surely be his best moment. His career in public life will be over, and he has everything to gain by being magnanimous and saluting the president’s “beautiful family.” If he wants to really be charming, maybe he’ll finally make his own joke about the late, great Seamus.

If Obama loses, what will he say in his?
His supporters will be so crushed and his adversaries so ecstatic that I think it’s safe to say no one will care or remember what he says.