The expected force of the superstorm, combined with its timing and the growing importance of early voting in battleground states, had the potential to affect the outcome like no other weather event in U.S. presidential election history.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington…
“I don’t have a clue what this will do,” said Charlie Black, a Romney adviser. “Neither does anyone else.”
My advice to everyone is to hold your breath, say a prayer for everyone affected or donate to the recovery, wait as patiently as you can, and ignore any polls until this weekend at the earliest. Up until Sandy hit the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, this extremely tight race had been roughly stagnant for two weeks. Mitt Romney had a slight advantage in the national popular vote, and Obama had a slight advantage in the Electoral College. (A split between the popular vote and Electoral College I spoke about as a possibility in a column in June.) That is the last signal we had as of Monday a.m.
Sandy could turn this race in a way none of us anticipated. A few months ago, I said that there would be five events in October that would determine who was going to get elected: three presidential debates, one vice-presidential debate, and an unexpected event. I never anticipated the unexpected moment would be a historic hurricane hitting the most populous regions of the country. Just shows you there are some things in life we can’t predict or control—an important life lesson and political lesson. No we wait and see what the result of all this will be.
But Romney has one big advantage: He is free of the risk the president bears in failing, or even appearing to fail, to pull the levers of government to effectively respond to the expected devastation. And he has little choice but to limit his campaigning…
Romney appears to have learned a valuable lesson from Obama’s approach to the optics of how a campaign reacts to real-world crises: Sometimes in politics, less is more.
In September 2008, the financial crisis provided a perfect metaphor for Obama’s team, which had sought to portray its relatively young and indisputably inexperienced candidate as the steady, presidential hand and McCain as unpredictable. McCain made that contrast easy: He suspended his campaign, temporarily pulled out of a debate and raced back to Washington to pass the TARP bill. Only it didn’t work out that way. Many Americans hated the Wall Street bailout, most House Republicans defected from McCain and the bill was defeated on the House floor — before it was brought up a second time and passed.
McCain’s over-the-top response to the financial crisis was the opposite of George W. Bush’s too-little, too-late reaction to Hurricane Katrina, which, though it did not strike in the midst of an election, did more damage to Bush’s image than any other domestic issue during his presidency. At times since then, Republicans have shown extra sensitivity to natural disasters, abbreviating both their 2008 and 2012 national conventions because of hurricanes.
It’s as simple as this: If the storm knocks out your power, you can’t watch TV.
Both campaigns are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on a final assault of campaign commercials. But Sandy could knock those plans off the air in such battleground states as Virginia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and the lean Obama-state of Pennsylvania, which are all in the storm’s path. And while it won’t get a direct hit, battleground Ohio will also feel the wrath of Sandy.
“In areas without power and thus without either TV advertising or TV news, the race is likely to be frozen in place,” said Elizabeth Wilner, vice president at Kantar Media/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political ad spending on broadcast and national cable TV.
Imagine a scenario in which Romney edges Obama by 100,000 in Ohio, 30,000 in Iowa, 15,000 in New Hampshire, and 50,000 in Virginia. That’s 41 electoral votes with a microscopic edge of 195,000 votes in four states. That 195,000 would be slightly more than a third of the average Democratic margin since 2000 in New Jersey and one-tenth of the average Democratic winning margin in California.
Here’s where Sandy comes in and could make a profound difference in terms of the popular vote and electoral vote…
Storm-diminished turnouts in [Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York] could cost Obama tens of thousands of popular votes. It could also cost him 20 electoral votes in Pennsylvania. The implications are obvious in Virginia as well, but that state was always going to be close and the margin of victory understood to be narrow. There are ways Obama can win without Virginia but not many without Pennsylvania.
The chance of a Romney popular-vote victory and Obama Electoral College victory were always statistically and mathematically remote. The chances of the opposite occurring were always easier for me to see. And Sandy may alter that terrain in ways that prove more harmful to Obama than Romney.
Under the Constitution, Congress has the authority to change the “first Tuesday in November” date for the presidential election. But as of Tuesday morning, there had been no serious discussion of moving the date of Election Day by the top leaders in the Republican-led House or the Democratic-led Senate, according to senior congressional aides. A spokesman for the House Committee on Administration did say that the committee “is closely monitoring the impacted states.”
Delaying the election might be an option given that hard-hit states are likely to be dealing with power outages and flooded locales that could extend well past Nov. 6. And with this presidential race projected to be close electorally, imagine the controversy and lawsuits that would inevitably result because enough back-up generators can’t be found to power electronic voting equipment, or if voters are displaced from home or can’t get to polling places…
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are telling states that the federal government would help them pay to move polling places, or to bring in generators next week to areas without power. But political and legal experts underscore that — even after 9/11, which occurred just before a mayoral election in New York — that the federal government has never put in place any solid plan to deal with such disruptions. “So we are left with the situation where the people who probably most know where we might stand on Election Day are the utility companies,” says Edward Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University Law School in Columbus.
All of this chatter about delaying Election Day is ridiculous on every level. First, it’s not going to happen. Despite the chatter, the president has no authority to change Election Day. None. Zip. Nada. Those people who simply assume this is a presidential decision are betraying the degree to which they simply accept the legitimacy of an imperial presidency. Now I understand limitations on presidential power haven’t always curtailed this president. But if he tried to move or delay Election Day, it would be a national scandal and outrage (or at least it should be). The power to set the Election Day lies with the states. You’d have to change a vast patchwork of state laws (all the Constitution requires is that the states deliver their electors in mid-December). Also, Congress has a role to play because it determines, by statute, the timing of elections.
Chuck Todd who knows vastly more about politics than I do, should recall that 9/11 did not delay the New York mayoral race. It delayed the primary — which was scheduled on 9/11. Sandy made landfall eight days before the election — and wasn’t an act of war. If 9/11 is the best precedent for moving the federal election day, there is no precedent for it. And there is none. Sure, some local elections have been delayed for this or that reason. But this country held elections during the Civil War! Even FDR who violated a near-sacred tradition to run for a third term and fourth term, still ran for them.