How Sandy hits the campaigns

Cancelled events, impact on voter turnout—and the importance of not botching the emergency response

(Steve Helber/AP Photo)

Just when the presidential campaigns were hitting high gear, the candidates have had to cancel events in swing states like Florida, Virginia, and New Hampshire, where residents are hunkering down for Hurricane Sandy. The center of the storm is forecast to make landfall somewhere in New Jersey, a solidly Democratic state that has received scant attention from either candidate, but Sandy’s fierce winds and heavy rains are causing dangerous conditions across the eastern seaboard.

President Obama, who has been out relentlessly criss-crossing battleground states has returned to the White House to oversee disaster preparedness and receive regular briefings on the storm’s impacts. Clearly, the president can’t afford any mistakes in the federal government’s response—the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina under then-President George W. Bush contributed to the Democratic wave in the 2006 midterm election—and neither campaign wanted to appear tone-deaf and petty against the backdrop of potentially catastrophic storm damage. In Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas, schools, businesses, federal government offices, and the subway system are closed, and residents have been warned to stay indoors due to flooding and the high likelihood of falling tree limbs and uprooted trees. Several states are bracing for the possibility of widespread and long-lasting power outages.

This morning Obama cancelled a planned campaign event in Orlando, Fla., to return to the White House in order to monitor the storm and the federal emergency response. After a slightly rocky landing at Andrews Air Force base this morning, the president took a motorcade rather than a helicopter to the White House to avoid the heavy winds. He was indoors shortly after 11 a.m., with the storm expected to pick up strength here this afternoon.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said he would hold a teleconference with senior officials in the Situation Room to stay on top of the federal response to the storm. Carney said it was too soon to address how the storm might impact Election Day. Meanwhile, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said get-out-the-vote activities were continuing “where it is safe.”

Obama also cancelled an appearance at what was to be a major campaign event in the crucial state of Ohio: a rally with former President Bill Clinton this afternoon in Youngstown. Vice President Joe Biden will attend in Obama’s place. The President also cancelled a planned trip to campaign on Tuesday in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a state where he is clinging to a slim lead in the polls. Biden, meanwhile, cut short a swing through the battleground state of New Hampshire yesterday, stopping briefly to meet with campaign volunteers in Manchester, before heading to Ohio.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan continued with a bus tour in Ohio yesterday but postponed events in Virginia and New Hampshire due to safety concerns. Romney was scheduled to appear in Wisconsin today and back to Ohio on Tuesday. Ryan was scheduled to campaign in Jacksonville, Fla., today and Colorado tomorrow. They also cancelled fundraising emails and began collecting disaster relief supplies through their campaign offices.

While Romney continues on the campaign trail, the Huffington Post reported during the Republican primary debates, Romney had argued in favour of shutting down the federal emergency management agency, FEMA, and shifting responsibility for disaster planning and response to the states. The Romney campaign pushed back against the claim today, saying Romney would not abolish the agency.

The big question is how severe and long-lasting the storm impacts could be. If millions of people are without power, restoring electricity could take many days—possibly even pushing outages out until Election Day next Tuesday. The theoretical impacts on voter turnout are hard to predict because they would depend in part on which specific counties of swing states such as Virginia or New Hampshire are affected.

On the one hand, the Obama campaign has been depending on a heavy push by door-to-door volunteers to turn out supporters to the polls. Canvassing is disrupted in areas where conditions are too dangerous today and likely tomorrow. For example, today in Virginia residents are being warned not to go outside due to the possibility of falling tree limbs and uprooted trees.

On the other hand, the Obama campaign has been pushing hard for early voting and has had a lead among voters who have already cast ballots. They have captured some votes already—but the storm will make it difficult to lock down more votes over the next few days.  Meanwhile, many analysts point out that undecided voters often wait to the last minute to decide and tend to break against the incumbent. Hence, in theory, a reduction in turnout on Election Day could hurt Romney.

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