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OCTOBER 28, 2012
THE SANDY ELECTION?
POSTED BY AMY DAVIDSON
How historic a storm might Hurricane Sandy be? In New York City, the subways and buses have stopped running at 7 P.M., along with Metro North and the Long Island Rail Road. Schools are closed, and so is the stock market. Sandy is sprawling and scary, a storm, we are told, that cost many lives—it already has killed dozens in the Caribbean. People are making preparations along much of the East Coast, from North Carolina to New England, and inland through Pennsylvania. That brings one close to Ohio, and to the heart of a Presidential campaign that Sandy is already affecting.
Will this be known as the Sandy Election? A storm, in some ways, is the epitome of randomness—the best tracking can’t say exactly which way the wind will blow, or why. The science of storm tracking shares some of the inexactness of polling, with an attempt to sample the moment and try to guess where it’s all headed next. Storm systems are, in a way, the ultimate undecided voters. But one can offer, if not answer, some questions about how Sandy might change the race:
Will Sandy change the candidates’ priorities? Mitt Romney, NBC reported, cancelled all of his events in Virginia, and Obama is headed to Florida while he still can, rather than when he wanted to. Politico has a list of cancelled campaign events. If the candidates could treat the skies like one big open subway system, they could run, in the next week, exactly to where the polls tell them. Now they can’t. It might mean that they have to leave Virginia and Florida be, and see how they can make the best use of their time out West.
Will Sandy change the campaigns’ rhetoric? It is hard to make an attack ad feel right in the best of circumstances: even less so when people lose their lives or homes. President Obama may have to act and look like a President on top of this, when he would rather be out looking like a fighter. Mitt Romney can’t appear entirely insensitive to people who are vulnerable and may need immediate help. It may be interesting to see how anti-government tones may be modulated at a moment when its emergency role is immediate and obvious. This might also be the moment when there is finally a conversation in the campaign about climate change, which has been the great unmentionable. (Campaigns are probably already researching votes and positions on the funding of various agencies and programs.) The Times noted that “More than 60,000 National Guard troops in nine states were ready to assist the local authorities.”
Did the campaign just end? Sandy is already dominating news broadcasts—Meet the Press was preempted in New York—and certain states, including battleground states like Virginia, will have other things to worry about. It may prove to be hard, in the media and public-conversation space that is left, to change the trajectory of the campaign. We may, in many respects, be locked down where we are. The question is whether Romney or Obama benefits the most from that, and in which states. Romney’s post-first-debate momentum was slowing, but Ohio has been getting tight. Obama has emphasized early voting; Romney, heavy advertising in the last days. Get out the vote efforts may need to be reconfigured around closed roads. And what are the rules for absentee ballots if you’re evacuated? The disruption of phone lines may also wreak havoc with polling.
Is Sandy the ultimate vote-suppressor? The election is nine days away, but this is not a trivial concern. Sandy is a strange and lurking storm—or storms embedded in each other—that meteorologists are saying could dwell in spots for a while, raining, raining, and raining. Maybe people will care less about turning out if they are cleaning up after the storm. Maybe they will have a harder time getting to the polls because of the effects of flooding or other damage. There could also be power outages that keep people from voting. The general view is that low turnout hurts Democrats—see Jane Mayer for more on that—but that assumes the normal range of reasons for staying away from the polls, not the extraordinary and selective barriers blown in by a storm. Who will Sandy hurt or help? Which way will the wind blow?