The presidential campaigns are publicly hitting pause on East Coast electioneering as Hurricane Sandy spirals toward Atlantic beaches, but privately political professionals are starting to assess important questions about how it might affect next week's elections up and down the ballot.
For obvious reasons -- namely, that they don't want to appear to make political hay out of a life-and-death act of nature -- campaign officials won't touch the prospective political aftermath of a storm that has yet to hit.
"Governor Romney's concern is the safety and well-being of those in the path of this storm, not political considerations," said Andrea Saul. Obama's team wouldn't talk about the ramifications on Sunday night.
But that doesn't mean campaigns aren't worried. Come hell or high water -- and likely both -- the nation will choose a president next Tuesday, and Sandy could wreak havoc on the election.
Here are the answers to five questions about Sandy's impact on the election:
1) Will Mitt Romney's momentum be stopped?
It's hard to see how the storm helps. The Republican nominee has more than closed the gap with the incumbent over the final weeks of the campaign, taking a slim lead in most national polls. But his national boost hasn't been mirrored in two pivotal states: Ohio and Virginia. Already Romney had to scrap a full day's worth of events in Virginia Sunday.
Obama has had to change his schedule, too, but he's not the one trying to make up ground.
And even though there are multiple schools of thought on how Sandy could affect voters' feelings about the candidates or the nuts and bolts of getting folks to turn out, it's still hard to see how the storm could help Romney. That is, unless the government botches the response and voters blame Obama.
There's one practical problem: travel. The storm will make it difficult for Romney to make the final push in states affected by the storm including Virginia, Florida and New Hampshire. He does plan to visit Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio Monday -- also critical states. "Romney still has ground to make up in several swing states where the race has not budged," one Democrat told POLITICO. "So to the degree it impacts travel -- canceling trips to places like New Hampshire -- makes it hard to make up the gap."
2) Does Obama have a natural advantage because he's president?
The short answer: yes. The longer answer: not if he makes an unforced error. While George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina ranks among the worst blunders in modern presidential history, it has also ensured that no president or candidate will under-react to the threat of a devastating natural disaster.
As president, Obama's best politics are to simply do his job well. On Sunday, he visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters for a briefing, which is pictured prominently on the White House website. The president, in suit and shirt with no tie, sits between FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and Deputy Administrator Richard Serino.
"The president will be in the thick of it -- which is when he's at his best," the Democratic source said. "There is no way for Romney to replicate that."
Romney's answer: His campaign bus in Virginia was loaded up with relief supplies on Sunday, a move that could make him look compassionate or complicate other relief efforts.
3) How will ad strategies be affected?
Put simply: 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. For candidates down the ballot, it could mean that their only ads of the cycle, held back to conserve money, won't be seen at all.
Romney's campaign had already boasted of sitting on millions for a last-minute TV push. Obama's campaign, too, said it had plenty of cash for a late air assault. But it's not just the difficulty getting ads in front of viewers. "Frankenstorm" is pretty much all anyone in the affected areas is talking about right now, so it's even hard for the candidates to get people's attention.
Still, until they know where folks have lost power, cable or satellite signals, it's not worth shifting plans, veteran operatives say. Even the candidates' personal travel schedules are in flux right now. Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden told reporters on Sunday that it's too early to tell how the storm will alter his campaign manifest. "It's hard to predict at this point," Madden said.
4) How will the storm affect early voting?
Not much. Most of the states in Sandy's path don't have early voting, except for the absentee-ballot variety. Maryland, a state Obama is expected to win easily, has closed its early-voting program on Monday. Virginia allows absentee voting in person ahead of Election Day, but only for residents who meet certain criteria. States that don't let folks cast ballots in person before Election Day include several that are expected to be the most heavily affected by Sandy: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
5) Does this throw a wrench into Obama's vaunted ground game?
Maybe. Because most of the states in the affected region don't have early voting or aren't competitive, the scenarios for major damage to Obama's turnout machine are a bit of a reach. But a little difference could matter a lot. North Carolina has early voting, and Sandy could have an effect there, but the bulk of the state is likely to be spared Sandy's wrath. 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 -- but his team would also have a week to adjust. Already, Team Obama has been urging Democrats in the District of Columbia and Maryland, as it did in 2008, to help get folks in Virginia to the polls. Jeremy Bird, national field director for Obama for America, sent an email to District Democrats on Sunday night asking them to meet at party headquarters to make calls into Virginia on Tuesday. Those calls might fall on irritated ears.
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