Hurricane Sandy Path: As Storm Hits East Coast, Top 5 Ways Swing States Could Be Affected

The Huffington Post’s headlines scream, "Atlantic City underwater," "Storm moving faster than expected," "At least 12,000 flights canceled." As the tropical storm smashes into the east coast, hitting New Jersey and New York and moving northwest, with winds reported from North Carolina to southern New England, the concern over life and property is coupled with concern regarding whether Hurricane Sandy has the potential to be a game-changer in the presidential election 

Obama released the following comment:"I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election. I am worried about the impact on families. I am worried about the impact on our first responders. I am worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation. The election will take care of itself next week." Obama’s focus is properly on the welfare of those people in harm’s way and the government’s preparedness to address the storm.

Nonetheless, here are the top five ways that Sandy could change the dynamics of the race, especially in swing states.

1) The news cycle

Before Sandy, Romney was earning plenty of media credit since his outstanding first debate performance. He had catapulted to the lead in the national polls and was faring well in the state-by-state battleground state polls. Romney has been able to sustain his momentum despite the favorable September labor report and three successive good debate performances by Obama and Biden. Statisticians on the right pounded away at the supposedly skewed nature of the polls, which they suggested were skewed heavily in favor of Obama, and now conservative number crunchers are predicting an easy victory for Romney.

However, the president has the opportunity to capture all the media if Sandy turns out to approach the level of damage caused by Andrew or Irene. All attention will be focused on Obama’s leadership effort in addressing the national emergency. he would receive extensive media coverage, knocking Romney from the media coverage in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. Politico said “As president, Obama’s best politics are to simply do his job well.”

Both campaigns have adjusted their campaign travel schedules in the wake of the storm, cancelling trips to Virginia. Obama had planned to fly to Florida Sunday afternoon, but decided instead to return to Washington. The heavy rotation of campaign ads planned for the last week leading up to the election will now be pre-empted by at least 48 hours of exhaustive coverage of the storm. While Obama will be able to continue to earn media time, Romney will have to find a way to continue to get his message out to the communities impacted on the East Coast by the storm.

As Politico notes, “No one can watch TV if their power’s out. So, so much for inundating them with TV ads. That could mean a lot of wasted energy and misdirected money for Obama, Romney and outside groups in Virginia, Pennsylvania and perhaps other states.”

2) Early voting

Early voting has begun in Florida. Prior to the storm watch, voters were waiting in line for up to three hours to vote. SFGate reported that Democrats had the early lead in early voting, but noted that “greatest tradition and activity for early voting aren’t along the East Coast.”  In North Carolina they reported that Democrats have their biggest advantage. The Democratic Party has recorded 49.5% of the early vote, compared to 31.1% for Republicans and 19.4% for independents. 

Early voting has been canceled in some places due to the storm.

3) Voter turnout

Any enduring or significant effects on mass transit and power in the battleground states in Pennsylvania and Virginia will, in turn, impact voter turnout. Damage to mass transit outlets will particularly be impactful to those who normally vote Democratic, especially in cities like Philadelphia. Politico reports, “If transportation and power are out in Virginia’s northern suburbs and coastal cities for more than a week, Obama could have a turnout problem on his hands.”

The Obama ground game in Virginia also included relying on Democrats in Washington, DC and Maryland to get out the vote in Northern Virginia. That effort will be severely hampered by any lingering effects from the storm, as residents would be more concerned with safety and recovery than the election.

4) The economy

The impact that natural disasters have on the economy is hard to gauge, but undoubtedly it brings into play the role of government as well as the effective partnership of private and public spending, and clean-up creates jobs and spurs economic activity. Recipients of FEMA checks, small businesses that receive insurance settlements, and new construction jobs increase demand for services, which could create a short term boost in the local economy and generate goodwill for the Obama administration. As Fox News puts it, “Disasters can give the ailing construction sector a boost, and unleash smart reinvestment that actually improves stricken areas and the lives of those that survive intact.”

Similarly, Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland commented that “Rebuilding after Sandy, especially in an economy with high unemployment and underused resources in the construction industry, will unleash at least $15-20 billion in new direct private spending.” Morici does not disregard the damage done by the storms. However he said that many businesses and homeowners would utilize insurance settlements to reinvest in their property and grow their businesses. He said, “The outer banks of North Carolina saw such gains several decades ago after rebuilding from a storm of similar scale.”

In an interview with Fox Business News, Democratic strategist and economist Christian Dorsey, of the Economic Policy Institute, further observed that Sandy may delay Friday’s labor report and change the candidates' ground game revolving around the economy. Dorsey said both sides were looking forward to capitalizing on the report; any delay caused by the storm could change what they were planning to do.

5) Voter antipathy

When things go bad, voters invariably blame the government. Like gas prices and other things that are out of the hands of the president, voters have been known to punish incumbents for bad weather and natural disasters.

Larry Bartels, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University told Mother Jones, "The pretty strong pattern turns out to be that all other things being equal, the incumbent party does less well when it's too wet or too dry." Obama’s approval rating, which is hovering around 50%, could grow or sink based on the perception of his response to the storm. Mother Jones said “Political scientists have found that extreme weather affects how voters evaluate presidents and governors, and botching disaster response can dash incumbents' reelection hopes.”