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Gustav Could Be Boon to GOP

The conventional wisdom seems to hold that Hurricane Gustav, expected to make landfall at some point within the next 12-24 hours, could quite literally be a disaster for the Republicans as they attempt to hold their National Convention in St. Paul. I am here to present a devil’s advocate case that the opposite may be true.

But firstly, a little bit more context on the storm. I would suggest that you all bookmark Jeff Masters’ blog at Weather Underground, where much of this information is taken from.

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Within the past 12-24 hours, three things have happened with Gustav. Firstly, it has approached land somewhat faster than anticipated, and is now very likely to make landfall at some point tomorrow (Monday), probably sometime between noon and 2 PM locally. (Although, hurricane-force winds will be felt earlier than that, whereas the the peak storm surge will occur later than that). Secondly, the projected path for Gustav has shifted somewhat westward; a direct hit on New Orleans now appears unlikely. And thirdly, Gustav has become less organized and somewhat less intense, and now appears likely to make landfall as a weak Category 3 or strong Category 2 storm.

These latter two developments are good news for New Orleans; however, the city is far from out of the woods. Because hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, they will tend to produce their largest storm surge to the east of their actual point of landfall when moving from this direction in the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, while New Orleans is unlikely to experience peak wind speeds, it may still experience a substantial storm surge.

In theory, New Orleans’ levees are designed to withstand a direct hit from of a Category 3 storm. Since Gustav may not be quite that strong, and since the hit may be slightly indirect, the levees should theoretically hold. In practice, however, nobody knows how strong the levees will be after Katrina. Moreover, either a slight strengthening of the storm or a slightly eastward turn in its projected landfall position are still well within the realm of possibility, either of which could overwhelm the levees.

Now then — how could Gustav help the Republicans? Let me run briefly through four or five ways:

1. Allows McCain to Appear Magnanimous. By potentially delaying or canceling his “date” at the GOP convention, McCain appears as though he is giving something up to tend to the Gulf Coast. Sympathetic and neutral-to-sympathetic media outlets may view this as underscoring McCain’s “America First” theme.

2. Lowers Expectations Bar. The selection of Sarah Palin as the VP nominee has forced the GOP to shift abruptly from a “Ready to Lead” theme to an “America First” theme. While it is difficult to say whether one of these themes was intrinsically stronger than the other, odds are that a lot of speeches had to be re-engineered, probably rendering them less effective upon delivery. Gustav, however, may give the GOP a built-in “excuse” for more off-the-cuff, hastily-organized speeches.

3. Removes the Bush problem. The further Mr. 30% is from St. Paul, the better off the Republicans will be.

4. Do-Over. Americans have short memories, and a relatively more successful response to Gustav could allow the GOP to argue that it has redeemed itself for the mistake of Katrina.

5. Crisis Mentality May Benefit McCain. By appearing in New Orleans, and perhaps even delivering his acceptance speech from there, McCain will have the opportunity to appear “presidential”. Rather than asserting to that he is ready to lead — an assertion that was undermined the the selection of Palin — he may hope to give the appearance of actually demonstrating such leadership.

This is not to say that there aren’t risks to the Republicans. There is a fine line between responding to tragedy and appearing to exploit it, and any gaffes by McCain, Palin or Bush could quickly alter the narrative. Gustav has yet to pass through the Gulf of Mexico’s oil platforms, and any sort of spill could substantially undermine support for their offshore drilling initiatives. Finally, there is an opportunity cost involved. Although the Republicans may appear to be effective in responding to Gustav, they may not be able to emphasize certain other themes which might also have been effective uses of their free national airtime.

What should the Democrats to in response? They face some of the same risks that the Republicans do in terms of appearing to exploit tragedy — at present, in fact, Mr. Obama appears inclined to avoid creating a political spectacle of any kind on the Gulf Coast. However, it is imperative that they emphasize McCain’s marginal track record on hurricane-relief and hurricane-protection measures. A riskier tact, which would probably need to be carried out through carefully-disciplined surrogates, would be to suggest that McCain only cares about such disasters when it is politically opportune for him to do so. Alternatively, Obama could attempt to preempt McCain by championing bipartisan relief and recovery efforts — whether carried out through legislation or other means like volutneerism — and asking (or challenging) McCain to join him.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.