Hurricane Sandy is injecting a tropical storm-sized dose of volatility into an already unpredictable presidential race, potentially crimping Republican Mitt Romney’s post-debate momentum and President Obama’s much-hyped early-vote operation.
At a minimum, both campaigns will lose early votes from swing states in the path of the storm, a pivotal group that includes Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. Depending on the hurricane’s impact, Obama and Romney may not be able to campaign in those states again in their efforts to produce a last-minute burst of enthusiasm.
At worst, the hurricane could cause power outages, roadblocks, and other damage that disrupts preparations at local election offices and makes it difficult or even impossible for voters to get to the polls at all.
But at the risk of appearing unconcerned about voters fearful for their personal safety and property, Obama and Romney are trying to convey the impression that the election is the last thing on their minds. As Obama put it, "The election will take care of itself next week."
In a race this close, a clumsy response to the hurricane -- especially from the White House -- could be a deal-breaker. “Romney doesn’t have the same political opportunities as the president,” said Republican consultant Blaise Hazelwood. “If this becomes a disaster and the president handles it correctly, there are political opportunities there.”
Without the platform afforded the commander in chief, the Romney campaign did its best to appear engaged in storm preparations. Monday rallies far from the storm in Florida and Wisconsin were canceled, as were all of Tuesday’s events, “out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy.” The campaign is collecting supplies for possible storm victims and, like the Obama campaign, has suspended fundraising e-mails to mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.
“Gov. Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm’s way,” said Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho.
Obama also nixed his campaign schedule to return to the White House. Campaign manager Jim Messina said the president would be making decisions “day by day” about his travel. “The president’s focus is on the storm and governing the country and making sure people are safe,” Messina said.
Still, it’s clear that the campaign is churning, even without the president at center stage. Messina and Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod, arranged a phone call with reporters on Monday to tout the campaign’s early-vote returns. They also discounted Romney’s claims of expanding into new battlegrounds, even as the Democratic campaign began advertising in Pennsylvania and announced it was dispatching former President Bill Clinton to Minnesota -- two states once thought to be in Obama’s back pocket. In addition, the campaign held an auto-bailout conference call and released an ad to rebut a misleading Romney offensive on cars in must-win Ohio.
At this point in the race, the ads and rallies become a blur and the race comes down to the glamour-free, grinding work of each campaign getting their supporters to the polls. A new Washington Post-ABC poll shows the two campaigns have reached about 20 percent of all likely votes nationally. That’s tightened from a 5-point Obama edge in voter contacts in mid-October; Obama had a 7-point advantage over John McCain in voter contacts at about this point in 2008.
The numbers suggest Obama’s vaunted ground game is not as far ahead of Romney as anticipated. The pressure is on volunteers like Lara Shainis, a 67-year-old retired teacher who’s been going door to door and making calls on Obama's behalf in the key battleground of northern Virginia. “What we are doing, the grassroots effort, will determine the election,” Shainis said. “At this point it’s not going to be Wall Street money, it’s going to be us.”
Christine O’Connor, a 42-year-old Romney volunteer in Arlington, sounded similarly optimistic about her campaign's ground game. “I don’t think the storm will be a huge setback because the people we’re calling are charged up and will get to the polls on Election Day,” she said. “As long as the phones are working, that’s what we’ll be doing. I drove to the office in the rain today because I know how important it is to get out the vote.”
Michael McDonald, a George Mason University associate professor who specializes in voter turnout, said he expects the storm to make only a small dent in early voting. Only 15 percent of the vote in Virginia is expected before Nov. 6, and an even smaller share, 5 percent, is expected in Pennsylvania, he said. Voters need an excuse to vote early in those states, and the vast majority don’t.
“These are states that mostly vote in Election Day, so that minimizes whatever effects of the storm are happening here,” McDonald said. “If the hurricane was going to hit Florida, where at least 30 percent of the vote is from early voting, the effect would be much bigger.”
McDonald is worried more about the storm keeping election officials from doing their job -- preparing for Nov. 6.
“It’s like having a really big party at your house. Think of all of the work that has to be done in advance, cleaning your house and getting everything ready so when the guests arrive they have a good experience,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have more than a few hiccups.”