Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Don't let superstorm sway your vote

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Wed October 31, 2012
A firefighter looks through debris of a fire that destroyed 50 homes during Hurricane Sandy in Queens, New York.
A firefighter looks through debris of a fire that destroyed 50 homes during Hurricane Sandy in Queens, New York.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis has seen disasters around the world change people's vote
  • Approval ratings soar or plummet depending on disaster performance, she says
  • Ghitis: Both political camps are handling the aftermath of Sandy with exact care
  • Voters must keep in mind all the candidate stood for before disaster happened, she says

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- Giant natural disasters have a way of putting everything in perspective. When it comes to politics, they sometimes put it all in the wrong perspective.

With nature suddenly grabbing our attention with both hands and reminding us we have much less control over our world and our lives than we believed, everything else moves to the background. Like a diagnosis of a deadly disease or another personal tragedy, when the earth itself has unleashed its wrath, we look at all that transpires around us through the lens of the new overpowering reality.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, opinions about politicians, about leaders, can change.

Covering natural disasters and politics around the world, I have seen people change political opinions. And then wish they had not.

Politics: Will you be able to vote on Election Day?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



A country's leader will receive the credit or the blame for what comes during and after the event, somehow blinding many voters to all they knew about him or her before.

Of course, the chief executive does bear responsibility. And the response to a major crisis should be used as one gauge of leadership. But there is a tendency to suffer temporary amnesia: Nothing matters but the reality of the moment. Everything else is clouded in a fog of temporary irrelevance.

People kayak through streets to get home
Christie: I'm not going to play politics
Tour New York's flooded subways

There are plenty of examples of a temporary surge of emotion following a disaster, which later receded into regret. Each country is different and no circumstances are identical. But it's worth noting the experiences of other voters.

Will Sandy affect your vote?

I arrived in Thailand not long after the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Asia in December of 2004. Thai voters were scheduled to go to the polls just a few weeks later. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rolled up his sleeves and got to work on the crisis. He traveled to the regions wiped away by the tidal wave, he visited the survivors, showed himself on television leading the rescue and recovery effort, giving instructions to local officials, refusing international aid, declaring proudly that Thailand could take care of itself.

The voters ate it up. Amid the devastation, anxiety and uncertainty, it was reassuring to see a man in charge. And the response was, for the most part, quite good. His approval ratings soared.

Before the storm, Thaksin's party was losing ground. But when the February elections came, voters turned out in droves for the prime minister's party, giving him a landslide victory.

The seeming consensus did not last long. Thaksin was eventually deposed and charged with corruption. He lives in exile.

The Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown last year threw a political lifeline to then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The prime minister, wearing worker's clothes, appeared to be in control of the situation. But as time passed and the Japanese started questioning the government's response to the disaster, his approval ratings collapsed and he ended up resigning.

In 2007, a violent earthquake shook Peru. President Alan Garcia moved his presidential offices to the disaster zone. He brought his cabinet with him and personally managed -- some say micro-managed -- the response. His political advisers were delighted with the impact. Polls showed 76% of Peruvians approved of his handling of the crisis. His personal approval rating soared.

After the crisis, the polls started sliding again, dropping to dismal levels, as if the earthquake and his heroic efforts had never happened.

In Chile in 2010, one of the world's strongest earthquakes came just after an election. The outgoing government was criticized for failing on many fronts. The newly elected Sebastian PiƱera benefited from the disaster. The businessman-turned-politician was praised for his effective management style, and he used it to give himself a lower baseline from which to be judged. "This calamity is much deeper, much more damaging and much more serious than we thought," he said.

As others, his approval ratings were bolstered by his competent response to the disaster. But they later collapsed like a ramshackle building in an earthquake. Voters discovered there was more to a good presidency than an impressive display of post-earthquake leadership.

When the response is ineffectual and it fits in with a particular narrative, however, the impact can be indelible. That was the case with George W. Bush and Katrina. The "heck of a job, Brownie" cluelessness matched an impression of carelessness and incompetence.

Natural disasters, like violent storms, can reshape the political landscape. Sometimes the topography returns to its previous state. Sometimes it is changed forever.

When a major calamity strikes just before an election, it is a test for politicians, as many have observed. That's why in the United States, with just a week to go before the presidential election, both camps are handling the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy with excruciating political care.

That's the politicians' challenge.

Opinion: Sandy debunks 'nanny state'

There is also an important -- an even more important -- challenge for voters.

This is a time of maximum manipulation. It is a time when political operators will seek to mold perceptions to craft a political outcome; to score votes.

Voters must make a superhuman effort to not let the storm carry any more weight than it deserves in their judgment of politicians; not to let the storm wash away the knowledge about the candidates and their ideas accumulated over a much longer period.

The storm and its aftermath do matter. We want a president who is competent and capable, able to guide the country through a crisis. But there is more.

A presidency is more than crisis management.

The storm has indeed given us useful information. It has reminded us of topics ignored during the campaign, such as climate change. It has cast a spotlight on the need to have a strong enough government to handle huge, sudden challenges. And it has put an interesting twist on the idea of privatizing emergency disaster operations.

We should keep in mind that much of what we see the candidates doing at this very moment amounts to political theater.

As American voters see images and hear stories of death and destruction, of water gushing into subway tunnels, of ferocious winds toppling construction cranes, of homes burning, of hospital workers carrying critical patients down emergency stairs, and of brave efforts to recover, it's crucial to remember this is an important moment, but it is not the only moment, not the only test to determine who should be the next president. Because choosing the wrong president could prove an even greater disaster.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT