Hurricane Sandy is already altering the final days of the presidential race and potentially affecting early voting from Virginia to Ohio even before it makes landfall along the U.S. East Coast tomorrow.
Both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have shifted their campaign schedules and canceled appearances over the next several days in Virginia, one of the most closely contested states in the presidential election.
The White House has also made clear that the president intends to spend a considerable amount of his time away from the campaign trail in the coming days, as he monitors the federal government’s response to the storm.
Obama was in Washington today, while Romney campaigned in Ohio, where polls show the race is tightening.
The storm, which killed as many as 65 people in the Caribbean on its path north, may be capable of inflicting as much as $18 billion in damage when it barrels into New Jersey tomorrow and could knock out power to millions for a week or more, according to forecasters and risk experts.
Obama said Hurricane Sandy is a “serious and big storm” and urged those affected “to take this very seriously” and follow the advice of state and local officials.
“We don’t know yet where it’s going to hit,” the president said after a meeting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington with the various agencies involved. The storm may be “slow moving,” he said.
High wind warnings and watches, calling for gusts as strong as 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour, stretch from Maine to North Carolina and as far west as Ohio, according to the National Weather Service. Flood watches and warnings cover most of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic coasts.
Romney officials refused to publicly discuss the political impact of the storm, saying their top priority remains the safety and security of people in impacted areas.
“The safety of people that are in harm’s way -- making sure they get the information they need, the help they need -- that’s the top priority,” said campaign spokesman Kevin Madden.
Staffers are monitoring the progress of the storm from the campaign headquarters in Boston, keeping in touch with officials and supporters in the most-heavily impacted areas.
Schedule in Flux
Romney plans to campaign in Wisconsin and Ohio tomorrow, though officials say the schedule remains in flux, particularly an event scheduled for New Hampshire on Oct. 30.
The schedule Romney’s campaign has locked in for the next few days is in states not directly affected by the storm, said Madden.
The campaign has halted fundraising appeals in four states impacted by the storm -- Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina -- as well as Washington, D.C., though ads are still running in those areas.
In Virginia, Romney campaign offices shifted some of their focus to helping with relief efforts, spending the next few days collecting supplies to be delivered to relief centers after the storm hits. The campaign also canceled events featuring Romney’s wife, Ann, tomorrow and said the campaign’s bus will be used for relief efforts on the East Coast.
“I don’t think anybody really knows,” how the storm will affect the campaign, Obama campaign senior political strategist David Axelrod said today on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
As both presidential campaigns monitored the storm’s approach, Democrats pointed to their advantage in early voting during appearances on television talk shows.
Other than Florida and North Carolina, the swing states with the greatest tradition and volume of activity for early voting aren’t along the East Coast.
“The main thing is not to look at the polling but to look at the voting,” Axelrod said on CNN. “We are mounting up a very, very large lead in Iowa based on where those early votes are coming from.”
Early, in-person voting started in Florida this weekend and Axelrod said things were looking “very positive” there for Obama as well.
Iowa and Florida are among the nine swing states where both campaigns say the Nov. 6 election will be decided. Obama has emphasized early voting and cast his own early ballot in his hometown of Chicago on Oct. 25.
“All the indications are very positive,” Axelrod said. “We’ve built our campaign and our organizations for this very close race and we’re very confident with where we are now and where we’re going to be on Nov. 6.”
Romney, at a rally in Celina, Ohio, thanked the crowd for waiting in the cold and encouraged early voting.
“We’re chanting all over this country, ‘Nine more days,’” Romney told a packed school gymnasium, and the crowd chanted back, “Nine more days.”
Romney didn’t mention the hurricane during his remarks.
His running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, told the Celina gathering: “Let’s today when we get home put in our prayers the people who are in the East Coast in the wake of this big storm that’s coming.”
The Obama campaign dismissed Romney’s comments.
“The American people can’t trust a word Mitt Romney says, especially when he claims he’d work across the aisle as president,” Danny Kanner, an Obama campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “The middle class deserves a president they can trust and Mitt Romney just doesn’t pass that test.”
An Ohio Newspaper Association poll released today showed Obama ahead among those who’ve already voted, according to the Cincinnati Inquirer.
At the same time, the poll of 1,015 likely voters from Oct. 18 to Oct. 23 showed Obama and Romney tied at 49 percent support in Ohio, a swing state with 18 electoral votes. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on the CNN program that Obama is ahead in early voting, while playing down the overall impact that may have.
“What they’re not telling you is that they are a fraction of where they were in 2008,” he said. “We’re far ahead of where we were in 2008.”
Recent polling shows that the momentum is shifting in Romney’s favor, Priebus said.
“When you have the momentum and you’re a challenger in a tie race, the challenger wins,” he said. “They’re not as good as they think they are.”
Virginia Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, said on the “Fox News Sunday” program that the hurricane “will throw a little bit of havoc” into the election, “but I think Virginians are ready to go to the polls.”
A Washington Post poll shows Obama leading Romney in Virginia 51 percent to 47 percent among likely voters, down from his advantage of 52 percent to 44 percent in mid-September. The latest survey, of 1,228 likely Virginia voters, conducted Oct. 22-26, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points and demonstrates how important the last week of campaigning may be for both men.