In the past week, a new player in the political sphere, Hurricane Sandy, has overshadowed election coverage. President Barrack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have to compete for voters’ attention in many battleground states, such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio. Michael Strain, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, discusses the importance of covering the election during the days leading up to and during the storm.
The storm caused Republicans and Democrats to cancel events and appearances in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic, inferring with the final key days of campaigning. Additional events were cancelled in other areas of the United States to allow the nation a period of time to come together and think about those Americans who were affected by the storm.
Following the storm, Obama relied on his allies, such as Bill Clinton, to pick up the slack while he focused on federal issues. Romney, however, remained on the attack. Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California, notes that, “there’s only so much you can do as a non-incumbent.” He goes on to say that both candidates should focus on states that were not in the path of the storm because they are instead focused on the safety of their family. There is not much the candidates can say that will take the audience’s attention away from the storm and instead gear it towards the election. The best thing that they can do is to participate in the relief and to make sure that they are photographed doing so. Obama spent Wednesday touring damaged areas in New Jersey, while Romney collected food for Sandy victims in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday.
In the past, an incumbent president has often been blamed for natural disasters, which has negatively affected their approval rating. With the storm being so close to the election, it is difficult to see if these numbers are being diminished and to what extent the storm will have on President Obama’s results.
The storm’s fallout extends to the polls as well. Without power, early voting sites cannot operate. The electronic voting machines require electricity to work and since many states remain without power, this has been a considerable challenge. Those who may have power now still lost a day or two of early voting due to the storm. According to a Huffington Post article, North Carolina and Virginia canceled voting hours earlier this week in areas affected by the storm. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey admits that some polls may not have electricity before Election Day, and that some roads will still be washed out or wrecked- a combination that will make it difficult for voters to make it to the polls. As of Thursday afternoon, 43% of people in New Jersey were without power.
The battleground state of Ohio was not as badly damaged as states on the east coast, but 77,000 homes were without power as of Thursday in Cleveland. Chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democrats in Ohio, Stuart Garson, reports that fortunately, in-person early voting has not been affected by power outages. Pennsylvania, another battleground state, was affected by the storm with 509,839 homes without power. Governor Tom Corbett has pledged to work to get every polling place with power by Election Day. In the worst case scenario, he said that there would be paper ballots or voting machines run on battery power to compensate.
With fewer opportunities to vote early, the lines on Election Day will be massive. Although states have scrambled to extend hours or add days prior to the election to allow for early voting, the long lines could prove as a deterrent for many unlikely or undecided voters. In an article by Benjamin Highton from the University of California, Davis, Highton discusses voter turnout and long lines. He notes that in the 2004 election, areas of Franklin County, Ohio that had more voting machines had higher turnout rates than areas with fewer voting machines. He suggests the reason for this was because there were shorter lines at the polling locations with more machines than locations with fewer machines. This cost John Kerry votes, but not enough to win Ohio in the election.
The loser of the election will have a great scapegoat: Hurricane Sandy. Although it does not seem that Election Day will be postponed, the storm will have serious effects on the election. Turnout will obviously be diminished in some ways. Not only will the storm serve as a barrier to the voting booth, it has distracted hundreds of thousands of people from the election during the most crucial period of an election. It will be interesting to see how much damage Hurricane Sandy will do to voter turnout.