People across the nation are still holding their collective breath as the US death toll (now confirmed at 38), other casualties, and damage assessments, likely in the billions of dollars, become known in the wake of historic Hurricane Sandy. Those facts are still in very preliminary stages of determination. One thing we know for sure, it will take at least weeks to clean up Sandy’s mess. But it is anyone’s guess what impact Sandy will have on Election Day, next Tuesday, and if presidential campaign 2012 too is essentially blown away by the super storm.
There is still considerable Sandy-related danger at hand. Although the devastating tidal surge has largely receded, much of the Mid-Atlantic coastal region and points north and considerably inland are still under siege from continuing rain, high winds, flooding, downed trees and power lines, 911 emergencies, hospital evacuations, dangling cranes, mandatory road closures and road closures due to dangerous debris, contaminated water, impaired mass and air transit, snow storms and/or gas leaks.
President Barack Obama has declared New York and New Jersey “major disaster” areas. The New York and Pennsylvania Air and Army National Guards have been mobilized. At press time, much of New York City is in complete darkness.
Critical rescue operations are underway in response to various very serious emergencies – including a berm breach in New Jersey and 23 serious fires in New York. Public and private relief efforts are staging or are just underway in various states – including North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts – and the District of Columbia.
The upper Northeast is now in the throes of Sandy and a post-tropical cyclone has spawned blizzard warnings in parts of North Carolina, West Virginia and other neighboring Appalachian states – with snow to a lesser degree in parts of Ohio, the most critical of presidential battleground states.
Early voting has been suspended in a number of Sandy-impacted states (including North Carolina, Maryland and DC) and there is no estimate as to when power will be restored to an estimated 9-million now-powerless customers along the eastern seaboard – many of whom not are likely to be back on line by Election Day.
The record number of early voters who have already cast their ballots in several key battleground states – which most polling indicates favors the Democrats – may have larger-than-expected ramifications in this election cycle.
How might storm-recovery efforts affect the motivation of likely voters (let alone, the unlikely-voter demographics) to go to the polls next Tuesday in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeastern and parts of the Piedmont and Appalachian regions – many of whom will be understandably diverted?
“I don’t think anybody really knows,” Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said Sunday on CNN in contemplation of the eventual political effects of then-approaching Sandy.
“Obviously, we want unfettered access to the polls because we believe that the more people come out, the better we’re going to do, and so to the extent that it makes it harder, you know, that’s a source of concern. But I don’t know how all the politics will sort out,” he added.
On Monday, the Obama and Romney campaigns suspended fundraising and eventually both put personal campaign activities on hold.
President Obama returned to the White House to assume control of the federal emergency response to Sandy. “I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” said Obama, responding to a reporter’s question at a Monday briefing. “I’m worried about the impact on families and I’m worried about the impact on first responders. I’m worried about the impact on the economy and on transportation,” he added.
“Governor Romney’s concern is the safety and well-being of those in the path of Hurricane Sandy,” said Mitt Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul on Monday morning.
Campaigning in Ohio Monday, before suspending most of his campaign activities, Romney said “our hearts and prayers” go out to those in Sandy’s path and urged the gathering to donate to the American Red Cross.
The Romney campaign is collecting relief supplies at their campaign offices, called Victory Centers, in Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania – all battleground states and likely at other campaign offices as well.
On Sunday, battleground Virginia’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell said on CNN that officials there would make sure residents can vote (Virginia does not have early voting per se, only by absentee ballot for cause).
Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia on Sunday said on Fox News that Sandy would “throw havoc” into the race and Republican pollster Whit Ayres said “Anything could be significant in races that are this tight.”
“Gallup has suspended polling for its daily tracking as of Monday night and will reassess on a day-to-day basis. The ultimate effect on the overall picture of polling between now and this weekend, including election polling, will depend on what happens as a result of the storm, about which we will have a better understanding of on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week,” said Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport.
In crass political terms, in the wake of Sandy, eventually Romney may have to answer questions from reporters about his stated position (during the June 13, 2011 GOP debate) to shutter the Federal Emergency Management Agency and turn over operations to the states.
“Absolutely, said Romney in 2011. “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, he continued.
“Including disaster relief, though?” asked debate moderator John King of CNN.
“We cannot – we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney replied. “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all,” added Romney.
On Monday, as the US eastern seaboard braced for the worst of Hurricane Sandy, the official campaign position was: “Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms…This includes help from the federal government and FEMA,” said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams.
Even without taking into account Romney’s positions on FEMA, Sandy’s burgeoning impacts may stifle whatever momentum the Romney campaign might have been enjoying, which began with the first presidential debate in October in Denver, CO.
The morose politics of Sandy could manifest as feast or famine for the Obama campaign – depending on the media and public appraisal of the federal response to Sandy and the range of the president’s marks for leading it – if time and circumstances permit such assessments before Election Day.
In the meantime, the Romney team will likely try to find ways for their candidate to be creatively and apolitically helpful – to keep him in the news cycle during a monumental and continuing natural disaster and the clean up.
Romney attended a storm-relief event on Tuesday near Dayton, Ohio, with race car driver Richard Petty and country music artist Randy Owen (of the group Alabama), that was originally slated to be a Romney campaign event with Petty and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but instead they collected storm-relief donations.
“You may not be able to solve all the problems. You make the difference you can…We’re going gather some goods for some people…and your generosity will make a difference,” said Romney. He also added a call for support of the American Red Cross.
While President Obama attempts to be at his presidential best in Washington, DC, having canceled all planned personal campaign events, at least through Wednesday.
“You know, the election will take care of itself next week. Right now, our number one priority is to make sure that we’re saving lives, that our search-and-rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get the food, water and shelter they need in case of emergency and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track,” said the president on Monday from The White House – possibly, the ultimate home-court advantage. With Air Force One as his crunch-time calling card and Marine One as a most impressive touring vehicle.
In a White House Situation Room briefing on Tuesday the president “expressed his concern for those impacted by the storm, as well as the heroic first responders who are selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way to protect members of their communities. He also noted his sadness over the loss of life associated with the storm so far,” according the White House Press Office.
Note: See the June 13, 2011 CNN/WMUR TV GOP Debate at Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH on C-SPAN at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/300008-1