Sandy-Fueled Superstorm Is Campaign’s October Surprise

Sandy-Fueled Superstorm Is October Surprise in 2012 Campaign
Hurricane Sandy is on track to hit the Eastern seaboard later today and merge with two strong winter storms to create what federal officials called a potentially life-threatening hybrid superstorm. Photographer: Michael Heiman/Getty Images

The presidential candidates curtailed campaigning to await Hurricane Sandy’s landfall, as President Barack Obama said the “the election will take care of itself next week” and the priority must be to prepare for and respond to the storm.

Obama canceled a Florida rally this morning as well as an event for tomorrow in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Republican challenger Mitt Romney went through with a scheduled rally in Avon Lake, Ohio, and kept plans for a rally in Iowa this afternoon. He canceled events that he and running mate Paul Ryan had scheduled for tonight and tomorrow in Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

“I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” Obama said in a midday briefing after returning to the White House. “I am worried about the impact on families and I am worried about the impact on our first responders. I am worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation.”

The superstorm churning off the East Coast is shaking up an already hard-to-predict contest as it enters its final week, upending campaign schedules and interfering with the candidates’ ability to communicate with voters as they make their closing arguments before the Nov. 6 election.

Early Voting

In Ohio, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, urged supporters to cast their ballots early, saying it “makes a difference” and would give his campaign “a little extra boost when we need it.” Romney also encouraged people to donate to relief efforts by bringing supplies to his campaign offices and making donations to the American Red Cross.

“On the eastern coast of our nation a lot of people are enduring some very difficult times, and our hearts and our prayers go to them,” he told voters in Avon Lake, Ohio. “There are families in harms ways that are going to be hurt either in their positions or something more severe.”

Aides stressed that Romney isn’t suspending his campaign for the storm. He had no plans to return to his headquarters in Boston and was to continue some campaigning over the next day and a half.

‘Havoc’ Predicted

Members of both parties said there was no way to predict the political effects of the storm on either side. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said the weather would “throw havoc” into the race, and Republican pollster Whit Ayres said it might be enough to change its course.

“Anything could be significant in races that are this tight,” said Ayres, who isn’t affiliated with either campaign.

Among the variables is a monthly employment report is currently slated to be released on Nov. 2 at 8:30 a.m. in Washington. Federal offices were closed in Washington and the Labor Department said in a statement today that employees are “working hard” to get the report out on time.

The jobs data is the last major piece of economic news that will come out before Election Day. The median forecasts of economists surveyed by Bloomberg is for payrolls to rise by 125,000 workers in October and for the jobless rate to increase to 7.9 percent from a three-year low of 7.8 percent reached in September.

“The last jobs report coming out the Friday before the election is likely to be more significant than the political implications of a large storm,” Ayres said.

Loss of Control

The storm system is denying the presidential candidates control over the carefully choreographed final days of their campaigns and will have an impact on four politically competitive states -- New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

The potential for power outages may effectively bring about a campaign advertising blackout in some of those states. Media coverage of the storm might drown out both candidates’ final messages, even in states that aren’t directly affected.

There were risks and opportunities for Obama. He might benefit from playing the high-profile role of crisis manager-in-chief, yet could also be held responsible should the federal response to the storm fall short. He also must strike a tricky balance between governing and campaigning at the most volatile moment in the race.

“This is the challenge of being the president and a candidate,” said David Axelrod, the campaign’s chief political strategist. “Being the president comes first. We as a campaign will make the adjustments as necessary and he’ll do what he needs to do as president.”

Events Scrapped

Today that meant Obama gave up his Orlando event just hours after scrapping one that had been scheduled for today in Youngstown, Ohio -- a day after he had canceled yesterday’s planned appearances in Virginia -- so he could return to Washington to monitor the storm.

Delivering pizzas to campaign volunteers at a field office in Orlando last night, Obama said the storm could impede his ability to make the final push for a second term in person.

“I got to get back to D.C. because the storm is sweeping into the mid-Atlantic,” he said. “That’s going to be putting a little more burden on folks in the field.”

Romney’s campaign e-mailed a note to supporters in impacted states last night, urging them to take all necessary precautions, including taking down yard signs.

“In high winds they can be dangerous, and cause damage to homes and property,” Romney wrote in an e-mail.

At his event this morning in a high school gym in Ohio, Romney urged supporters to help with the relief effort, suggesting they donate to the American Red Cross.

“A lot of people are going to be facing some real tough times as a result of Sandy’s fury,” he said. “There will be a lot of people that are going to be looking for help.”

Fundraising Hampered

Both campaigns said they were suspending fundraising appeals in four states being hit -- Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina -- as well as Washington, D.C., though they are still running ads in those areas.

Officials on both sides said it was a challenge to revamp schedules that have been planned down to the tiniest detail to maximize voter outreach and boost turnout.

“The big unknowns are the severity of the storm and how the president’s response to it will be perceived,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “Obama is in the difficult position of needing to continue the campaign while also acting as the chief executive; that could hurt his re-election chances, or boost them.”

Romney’s aides said they are preparing for the campaign to effectively grind to a halt in hard-hit areas and are most worried about the effect in Virginia. At the same time, there are limits to the steps they can take right now.

“There are certain things we can’t control and nature is one of them,” said campaign spokesman Kevin Madden. He declined to discuss how the storm might affect the race.

“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,” Madden said.