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Long IslandPoliticsSpin Cycle

What those polls on pols, post-emergency, really mean

For political players, the theatrics of governance loomed huge amid the wreckage and need that superstorm Sandy created.

The playbook for leaders during such emergencies seems simple enough, though it has proved elusive for some: Show up, share information, display solidarity and avoid saying or doing anything that appears obviously stupid.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, slammed for being in Disney World during a big January 2011 snowstorm, rode the wave this time. His approval ratings soared following an empathetic on-the-scene performance. His public embrace of President Barack Obama may have caused momentary pre-election friction with backers of Mitt Romney, but in a state destined to go decisively to Obama anyway, Christie clearly helped himself as his own re-election year approached.

Polls also showed positive reviews for three-term New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who leaves office next year, and for first-term New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

A Siena College Research Institute poll of 822 registered voters last week showed Cuomo's "Sandy and aftermath" performance was rated "excellent" or "good" by 67 percent, reflecting earlier high job approval ratings. The corresponding number was 55 percent for Bloomberg -- famously absent from a previous blizzard -- and 61 percent for Obama.

"When a crisis happens, whether it's natural disaster or terrorism, people look to their government leaders to help get them through it," said Siena poll director Steve Greenberg, and they ask: "Do they care? Are they working hard? Are they dealing with issues the right way?"

"Politicians, in this case, did understand that they have to be there physically and do a lot of talking," said Peter Salins, political science professor at Stony Brook University. While communication is key, "substance does matter," he added, noting that another week without mass transit and electricity could well have changed the narrative.

But some local citizens did question the effectiveness of both the substance and communication that they experienced and saw during Sandy.

Some complained that New York trailed New Jersey in imposing a gas-rationing system. For reasons worth review, the fuel squeeze worsened for a while after Cuomo predicted it would abate. A giveaway of free gas proved troublesome, as did coordination among government levels and agencies. Some also asked if official appeals to evacuate couldn't have included better explanations of why and how the expected flooding made it urgent.

Even when the pols are on the scene and emoting, flaws in the details of governance take a while to come out following initial televised impressions of a crisis. Planning ahead of 9/11 became a subject for critics of the much-lauded Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and the pretext of the Iraq war unraveled after President George W. Bush declared the mission accomplished.

Stony Brook Assistant Professor Lindsey Levitan, an expert in political psychology, said Christie, Bloomberg and Cuomo "were all presented on television as acting in ways congruent with people's own views on Sandy." Bloomberg gave safety advice, Cuomo took LIPA to task, and Christie put partisanship aside, she noted.

Levitan also mentioned a concept called "mortality salience," as described in "terror management theory."

She explained that, "Basically, the theory proposes that in times of trouble that involve heightened awareness of risk to our lives, like wars and natural disasters, people look to charismatic leaders and heroes who uphold cultural values as a way of reassuring themselves."

That might be where theatrics meet substance -- even if, in the long run, those poll bumps can be wispy and fleeting.

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