Hurricane Sandy brings tight presidential campaign to a watery standstill

Mitt Romney boarded his campaign plane in Moline, Ill., Monday. He scrubbed an event Monday night in Wisconsin.
Mitt Romney boarded his campaign plane in Moline, Ill., Monday. He scrubbed an event Monday night in Wisconsin.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Hurricane Sandy pressed the pause button Monday on a frenetic presidential campaign entering its final week, prompting President Obama and Mitt Romney to cancel rallies and raising questions about the effect of the storm on voting.

Ohio, a pivotal big state, was expected to be lashed by winds of 30 to 50 miles per hour, heavy rain, and possibly snow if the storm tracked through western Pennsylvania, as expected. Power outages were feared. That could hurt Obama’s efforts there, since they rely on a robust early voting turnout.

In Virginia, just south of where Sandy made landfall, grass-roots efforts to get out the vote are at least temporarily imperiled. The state does not have early-voting hours, but absentee ballots can be cast in person before Election Day and storm damage could curtail participation.

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Obama and Romney have been neck-and-neck in Virginia — an average of recent polls showed a 47.8 percent tie, according to the poll tracking organization RealClearPolitics — but the storm could cost Obama in the Washington suburbs and Democratic strongholds in the Tidewater region, particularly if power is lost for days and hard-hit voters are tending to emergency needs.

“People are worried, and that’s probably going to take precedence” over making time to cast an absentee ballot, said Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “I know the Obama camp is not happy that the hardest-hit area will be northern Virginia.”

Some polling places in northern Virginia were shuttered Monday and could not accept absentee ballots. On Sunday, a few polls for early voters had closed in neighboring North Carolina, but no major disruptions had been reported by late Monday afternoon. Nearly 23 percent of North Carolina’s 6.6 million registered voters, or more than 1.5 million people in that swing state, have submitted their ballots.

Other coastal states expected to be hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy — Maryland, New Jersey, and New York — are solidly in Obama’s column, according to the polls, so the outcomes there are not likely to be affected by weather-related voting problems.

In canceling most rallies Monday and Tuesday, the candidates were forced to toss aside their meticulously calculated plans for maximizing the push into critical corners of tossup states.

Now, each candidate will strive to project as a caring, effective leader.

The advantages and pitfalls, according to consultants from both parties, fall mainly to Obama. As president, he can reap the benefits if the hurricane response proceeds smoothly at a time when public attention is diverted from incessant political advertising to news about the storm and its aftermath.

Obama launched immediately into crisis-manager mode on his return to Washington.

“The election will take care of itself next week,” Obama said at the White House.

“Right now, our number-one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives, that our search-and-rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get the food, the water, the shelter that they need in case of emergency, and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track.”

But if the response of the president or government agencies falters — George W. Bush’s reactions to Hurricane Katrina are a prime example — the fallout could be costly.

“If they do it right, they look strong and in command,” said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser in Romney’s successful run for governor in 2002. “President Obama has the greatest risk, but also the best upside potential. A challenger like Romney is bound to be on the outside looking in, as they’re functionally irrelevant during a major event like this.“

Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant who also works as a CNN political analyst, said Sandy’s potential impact is hard to judge.

“My own view is this is unknowable,” Begala said. “They say hurricanes are unpredictable, and this one is no exception. Anything that depresses turnout is bad for the president, but any time he is leading as commander in chief, that’s good for the president.”

The federal response to the storm could provide a late-campaign talking point for Obama. In a CNN debate during the Republican primaries, Romney suggested that federal emergency services be privatized.

During that 2011 debate, Romney said states “absolutely” should assume more of that role.

“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” Romney said. “And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

On Monday, however, the public focus for both candidates was strictly short term.

The president scratched an appearance with Bill Clinton in Orlando, Fla., and returned from there to the White House, where he was briefed by emergency officials and told reporters he was “confident that we’re ready” for the massive storm.

Obama also canceled appearances Tuesday in northern Virginia, Colorado Springs, and Wisconsin.

“I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” said Obama, who also canceled a rally Monday in Youngstown, Ohio. “I’m worried about the impact on families, and I’m worried about the impact on our first responders. I’m worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation.”

Jen Psaki, the president’s campaign press secretary, told reporters that she could not predict when he would resume the campaign.

Romney scrubbed an event Monday night in Wisconsin but held rallies during the day in Avon Lake, Ohio, and Davenport, Iowa.

The Republican contender, who previously had canceled Sunday rallies in Virginia, also eliminated a Tuesday appearance in Milford, N.H.

“A lot of people are enduring some very difficult times, and our hearts and our prayers go to them,” Romney said in Ohio.

The cancellations mean Romney will not be appearing in states where polls have tightened.

Gail Gitcho, the campaign’s communications director, said the decisions were made “out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy. . . . Governor Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm’s way.”

Both campaigns also suspended fund-raising e-mails in storm-battered states along the East Coast.