Sandy clouds the election’s final act
With Election Day 10 days away, there has been no “October surprise.” The economy plods slowly forward. Iran has not exploded. No shots have been fired in the South China Sea. Syria’s carnage continues, but the two candidates agree that U.S. troops should remain outside the line of fire. Republicans have tried without much success to use the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi to backfoot the president.
Just when it seemed we’d have an election without a last-minute wildcard, along comes Sandy. The storm has claimed lives, destroyed homes, cut power — and created uncertainty. The media and the country have turned away from the election toward the disaster’s startling images and human toll.
We can’t yet know if the storm will boost either candidate, but it has certainly added new variables, new questions, and new tests as the two campaigns make the final turn toward judgment day. Now that the clouds are parting, what’s next in the forecast?
First, Sandy has frozen the race. Not much can change in a contest where undecided voters — the least engaged — aren’t watching. Whatever “Mittmentum” might have remained from the Romney surge may have been washed away by the storm surge this week. Both candidates have taken a step back from active campaigning, the president to play his presidential role and the challenger to find a role of his own.
Second, the storm has slowed early voting. Remember the Obama court victory in Ohio to allow early voting right up until Nov. 6? Sandy has partially overruled that decision. We can’t know how the storm damage will affect voting on Election Day, but we do know that Obama’s ground game infrastructure is more extensive than Governor Romney’s in key states.
Finally, Sandy has cast Obama in the role of crisis manager in chief, and the president has been praised, including – crucially – by Republican New Jersey governor and A-list Romney surrogate Chris Christie. If reconstruction proceeds slowly, the president could take some blame. But that’s a problem for next month, not next week. Romney, meanwhile, must play his cards more carefully. He cannot compete for leadership with the president in this particular moment. Nor is it safe for him to compete with top Obama-surrogate Bill Clinton on the campaign trail.
Yet both candidates must be careful around cameras and open microphones not to give this campaign one last unfortunate soundbite in a season with too many.
The final wildcard will be that the polls are about to become a lot less trustworthy. Storm damage will make it harder for pollsters to reach a representative sample of voters, and in what is still a close election, that should give us pause.
Obama entered this last chaotic week with an advantage. He doesn’t have as many paths to 270 electoral votes as he had one month ago, but he still has more than Romney. Sandy is unlikely to change that. But election night just got even more interesting.
PHOTO: Residents wait in line during lunch hour to cast their early votes in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, at the Milwaukee Municipal Building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin October 29, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck