Hurricane Sandy added an unprecedented dose of uncertainty to an already-unpredictable presidential race Monday, forcing President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney to scramble their campaign schedules and raising the possibility that some states might have to alter Election Day plans.
Obama canceled a campaign appearance in Florida and raced back to the White House, mindful that his performance leading the federal government response could become a major boon or liability to his re-election chances. Romney canceled campaign events for Monday night and Tuesday, and both campaigns curtailed fundraising efforts in states that Sandy was expected to hit.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was preparing for the possibility that widespread power outages and damage to polling places might not be remedied in some states in time for Election Day a week from Tuesday.
"We are anticipating that based on the storm, there could be impacts that would linger into next week and have impacts on federal elections," FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said. "Our chief counsel’s been working on making sure that we have the proper guidance on how to support any actions that may be required” in areas that are declared disasters.
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That includes determining whether states can be reimbursed for any work they must to do to fix or move polling places damaged in the storm. "This will led by the states," Fugate said. "We’ll be in a support role."
The storm will affect campaigning. Traveling will be more difficult, and last-minute rallies, often vital for news coverage and for motivating workers, will have to be rescheduled.
Campaign workers in swing states such as Virginia, New Hampshire and perhaps Pennsylvania are likely to find it harder to knock on doors and staff phone banks. On the airwaves, campaigns might be reluctant to continue the barrage of attack ads at a time when millions are struggling to cope with Sandy’s effects.
“The last thing someone with a flooded basement wants is to deal with a barrage of volunteers,” said Brad Dayspring, a Republican consultant who worked for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Will this help President Obama? Will Romney do something that looks too political? We don’t know,” veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine said.
Obama, who’d already canceled campaign appearances scheduled for later Monday and early Tuesday, abruptly dropped his appearance at a planned rally in Orlando as well.
"The storm overnight picked up speed and intensity,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “And a decision was made that in order to return to Washington to monitor and oversee the efforts to prepare for the storm and respond to it, we needed to leave earlier than planned.”
The president’s quick move back to Washington was a contrast to his decision in September to attend a Las Vegas fundraiser the day after four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed in an attack on the American consulate in Libya.
At the time, senior adviser David Axelrod explained that Obama was in frequent contact with top advisers, and said, “The president of the United States is responsible for everything that happens.” On Monday, Carney brushed aside a question about why the president needed to be in the White House this time.
“It is essential, in his view, that he be in Washington, one of the areas that will be affected and where his team is, to oversee that effort and to be updated on it,” Carney said. “This is one of those circumstances where, in his view, it makes the most sense for him to be in place in the White House.”
Obama addressed a national television audience Monday afternoon, updating the nation on the storm and urging people to heed the advice of local emergency management officials. “Í am not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” he said.
Romney’s campaign canceled events planned for him as well as running mate Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan on Monday evening and Tuesday. He had previously canceled events planned for Monday in Virginia. At a rally earlier Monday in Avon Lake, Ohio, Romney urged people to donate to the American Red Cross. His offices were collecting supplies in affected states to offer storm victims, and in Virginia, were using a campaign bus to deliver supplies to storm victims.
Both campaigns halted fundraising emails in Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia.
Partisan activity did not cease.
The campaigns did continue in other states. Nevada, Iowa, Colorado, Florida, Wisconsin, most of Ohio and other key areas were not in Sandy’s path. Obama campaign officials held a conference call with reporters bashing Romney for proposing a tax cut and Pentagon spending increases without providing details how he’d pay for them. Romney’s campaign struck back, citing former President Bill Clinton’s campaigning in Orlando for Obama Monday.
“As President Obama falls behind in Florida, his flailing campaign is doubling down on false and discredited attacks,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.
The storm presents a predicament for both campaigns. The race is so tight that the outcome in the too-close-to-call states could come down to which candidate better motivates individual voters. Sandy could make it harder to identify them, or gauge where a campaign is surging or sinking, since daily surveys could be disrupted as pollsters have a harder time contacting voters.
This week, armies of volunteers plan to spend time in living rooms and shopping centers, or calling wavering voters, in key states. In Ohio the last two weeks, Romney volunteers estimated they knocked on 669,534 doors. The Obama forces have 137 offices in the state, but would not provide comparable numbers about face-to-face visits.
Should the impact of the storm continue to be felt throughout the week, which is likely, Election Day turnout could be affected.
“This is the kind of October surprise you don’t want because it can impact the ability of getting out your vote,” said Kathy Sullivan, a member of the Democratic National Committee from New Hampshire and a former state party chairwomen.
The impact of ads was less clear.
Dayspring thought that for the moment, the ads would have a hard time breaking through the coverage of the storm.
Devine saw an opportunity. “I’d say let’s get more ads up,” he said, since people are homebound and watching television. “The Weather Channel becomes a great ad buy,” he said.
The biggest variable could become the performance of Obama and Romney. History says that crises give leaders unique political opportunities. They can mobilize their governments, look strong, and benefit from a tendency among constituents to rally ‘round the leader in such moments.
But such crisis management can backfire. It’s become part of political lore how Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic looked inept during a January 1979 Chicago blizzard. A month later, he lost the Democratic mayoral primary to challenger Jane Byrne.
Presidents vividly recall how George W. Bush’s administration fumbled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in late August 2005. Bush’s approval rating fell from 43 percent before the storm to 38 percent by October.