As October surprises go, Sandy won’t rank very high. It’s hard to be surprised by a Hurricane during Hurricane season. And Sandy isn’t the political trick that dominates our mythology of presidential elections. Still, the storm barreling our way promises to intrude on the campaigns with the potential to impact the final results around the margins. It brings with it a high degree of uncertainty.
The space usually given over to the election will now be taken up by Sandy. There is only so much space in a newspaper, on TV, or in the attention span of a voter. The week before election day normally features front page, top of the fold reports on the election, the candidates, and the issues confronting voters.
Typically we’d feast on polling data to confirm trends among swing voters, we’d read about the endorsements that will drive the narrative, and we’d listen to the candidates double down on the issues they find most likely to drive their numbers on election day.
Instead, we’ll be hearing storm coverage nonstop. Sandy is going to curtail canvassing and get out the vote efforts over the next few days, perhaps even over the weekend in key precincts and towns. Power outages will make those last-minute ad buys rather ineffective.
Candidates want to woo voters who are open to their charms. But voters will be preoccupied this week with other more worldly concerns.
Beyond the immediate political impact is the concern over voting next Tuesday. Again, there is no good historical model for how a delay in voting might play out in a national, and quite close, election. We may find out soon enough. Suffice to say the teams of lawyers on both sides will be generating many more billable hours than previously thought.
What’s the impact of a lack of coverage and the lack of campaigning? Unclear. There is a dwindling number of truly swing voters and the campaigns are focused like a laser on them and the places they live–places like Fairfax County in Virginia. But for the moment, those voters are unreachable. As are the committed partisans who would normally be expected to turn out in high numbers at events, phone banks, and get out the vote rallies.
The Massachusetts Senate race also takes a back seat this week, depriving the candidates of a clear shot at making an uninterrupted closing argument. Indeed, we’ll be seeing more of the Governor than the Senate candidates. And overt political attacks (a staple of close races in the waning days) will be viewed as unseemly during an extended natural disaster.
Sandy’s political impact is likely to be stalled momentum with a dose of confusion, two uncertain elements one week before we head to the polls.