As Florida braces for the most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. in 12 years, the presidential campaigns are grappling with how to address the storm—and the state's looming voter registration deadline—without politicizing a natural disaster.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, during a call with reporters Thursday urged Florida officials to extend the state's general-election voter-registration deadline beyond Oct. 11 to accommodate those affected by Hurricane Matthew.
Governor Rick Scott said no.
“I’m not going to extend it,” Scott, a Republican, told reporters in Tallahassee, according to the Miami Herald. “Everybody has had a lot of time to register. On top of that, we have lots of opportunities to vote: early voting, absentee voting, Election Day. So I don’t intend to make any changes.”
The candidates themselves focused on urging residents to stay safe. Republican nominee Donald Trump released a statement on the storm Thursday afternoon.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in the path of Hurricane Matthew, namely in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, and we encourage everyone to listen to their Governors and local emergency officials urging the evacuations of at-risk coastal communities," Trump said. "These warnings are very, very serious—if your home is in the path of the hurricane and you are being advised to leave, you need to do so right now."
On Twitter, Clinton also urged residents to heed the evacuation orders of local officials.
"Hurricane #Matthew is a major storm," Clinton wrote. "I urge everyone to follow emergency instructions and evacuate if you're told to. Stay safe Florida."
The National Weather Service has warned residents that power outages due to the storm could last weeks or months.
Starting late Thursday, the Category 4 hurricane began to batter Florida’s eastern coast, and is expected to make its way northward over the weekend. Officials in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas issued evacuation orders to millions of residents in coastal areas. President Barack Obama has declared a state of emergency in Florida and South Carolina.
The storm poses a challenge for both campaigns as they try to register voters in Florida and keep their interest heading into the final weeks of the campaign. While North Carolina, another swing state expected to feel the effects of the storm, allows same-day registration for early voting, the final mail-in and in-person voter registration deadline for Florida voters is the Tuesday after the storm hits.
Clinton holds a 3.2-point lead over Trump in Florida, according to an average by RealClearPolitics. On Thursday, the Clinton campaign was optimistic about gaining an insurmountable lead there during the upcoming early voting period. Mook said during the press call that the state has so far received 2.7 million vote-by-mail ballot requests, compared to 1.8 million at this time in 2012.
Though the Clinton campaign would like to see the voter-registration deadline pushed back, Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who ran Obama's 2008 campaign in the state, said it likely won't make a difference.
“While you’d like to have those four days, you’re not going to change fundamentally the math in Florida in the next four days,” Schale said.
He said he suspects the Clinton campaign will continue to register voters in parts of the state unaffected by the storm, including the southwest and the Panhandle region.
Hurricane Matthew will also test the campaigns' ability to show compassion without politicizing a disaster that has already claimed more than 100 lives.
The Clinton campaign faced criticism Thursday morning after Politico reported that it was running a $63,000 ad buy on the Weather Channel ahead of the storm. In response to the story, the campaign said the buy was part of normal shifts in ad placement and asked the channel to delay them until after the storm.
“Earlier in the week we made changes to our TV ad reservations across hundreds of stations in several battleground states including Florida. Less than 1% of those changes included the Weather Channel,” Clinton senior spokesman Jesse Ferguson said in a statement.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Twitter called the Weather Channel buy “shameful” and demanded that the Clinton apologize. “Pulling these ads after getting caught won't cut it,” Priebus wrote.
Mook responded by casting Priebus' comments an “unfortunate” attempt to politicize the hurricane, and noted that the Clinton campaign is using social media and e-mail lists to encourage people to follow warnings to flee the storm.
Schale said the campaigns should focus their energy on using their platforms to direct people toward safety information and ways to donate to victims. “You can be an amplifier for information,” Schale said.