Looks like Mother Nature is inserting herself into the political world again.
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With eight days left until Election Day, this week is usually crunch time for presidential candidates as they work to squeeze in as many appearances, rallies and final pitches to sway the coveted undecided voters, but the arrival of Hurricane Sandy has forced both parties to hit the pause button.
“The impact on the election lies in the amount of damage and devastation. If people have to decide on how they are going to make their breakfast and repair their home or getting to the voting booth, I suspect it’s going to be the first,” said Mark Rom, associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University.
In August, Hurricane Isaac forced the Republican National Convention to cancel its first day in Tampa.
President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have changed their plans to accommodate the storm and have been forced to reschedule events in key states that are likely to be hit hard by the storm including Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire and even Ohio.
Obama left a campaign event in Florida Monday to return to Washington, D.C., to oversee recovery efforts and Romney and Vice President Joe Biden canceled events in Ohio over the weekend. The governor canceled all events Monday and Tuesday.
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Experts say a smaller voter turnout is more likely to hurt the Democratic Party. “Higher voter turnout helps Democrats, but if people are stuck or focused on storm repairs they are less likely to take the time to vote,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “If lower-income people are hit hard by the storm that will also hurt the president since that demographic tends to vote Democratic,” he added.
Maryland and the District of Columbia canceled early voting on Monday in a very tight race. “This election is so close, every vote does count,” says Zelizer. “At first early voting was going to the Democrats but now it’s turning to favor Romney in some areas. The bottom line is given how tight this race is, not having these votes could matter very much.”
Rom argues that the cancellations in those two areas won’t impact the election since they are solidly Democratic either way. He is more focused on hotly-contested Virginia. “Maryland has big initiatives like same-sex marriage and gambling on the ballot that will bring in voters, but for Virginia it’s mostly the presidential and governor races. If the lower-income residents [in Virginia] have substantial damage that will hurt Obama and help Romney big time in that state.”
The experts agree that if the storm damage is controlled by Friday, voter turnout should hold steady, but if it creeps into the weekend and into Monday they expect turnout to drop. Hundreds of thousands of Virginians went without power for more than week after Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and this summer’s derecho storm also left thousands in the dark for several days.
The candidates’ last-minute media blitz might also get overshadowed or pushed out as the media shifts its coverage to the storm and damage.
“The great advantage is if we lose power, millions of voters won’t be forced to watch the non-stop campaigns ads that have been dominating the airwaves, at this point they aren’t adding anything new to the discussion,” says Rom.
The shift in news flow could halt Romney’s momentum. “We’ve been doing this for months now, and now the campaign coverage will be frozen as of yesterday. Romney was just enjoying the momentum of coming from behind, but the electoral college still isn’t favoring him and he has potentially lost a week to make his final seal,” says Zelizer.
Both candidates and their campaigns must strive to balance compassion for the people in the storm’s path as well as keep their head in the game.
“Obama has the tougher job with balancing campaigning and leading the country,” says Zelizer. “He must show he can handle the situation effectively and has the capacity to be a leader. There is less Romney can do, he just needs to avoid saying anything that can him look too political or crass."