Hurricane Sandy Blows a Wrench Into the Presidential Campaign

How the storm poses tests for Mitt Romney, President Obama, and elections authorities up and down the eastern seaboard

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Reuters

They don't call it an October surprise for nothing.

Just eight days before Election Day, both presidential campaigns have been forced to contend with Hurricane Sandy -- an entity with little regard for their political needs. National Journal breaks down how Sandy has thrown numerous wrenches into the well-laid plans of President Obama and Mitt Romney in the final week of their campaigns.

ON THE TRAIL. Obama, Romney, and their surrogates have canceled campaign events in the path of the storm, both to stay out of harm's way and to free up emergency responders. They have also canceled events on Monday and Tuesday in other parts of the country. A hasty return to the campaign trail in heavy-hit areas seems unlikely as the tickets try to avoid seeming overly political, disruptive, or insensitive to disaster. Both campaigns have also suspended fundraising emails in affected areas.

FROZEN RACE. With millions of swing-state voters now preoccupied with the storm (and in the coming days, its aftermath), it's a safe bet they're devoting significantly less attention to the presidential race. That's not good news for the candidates, who have precious little time to persuade the small sliver of undecided voters and energize their supporters. It could be particularly detrimental to Romney, the beneficiary of momentum that has lifted him to better odds of winning in the last couple of weeks. The shutdown of the government in Washington could also delay the October jobless report, potential ammunition for Romney, now scheduled for release on Friday at 8:30 a.m.

EARLY VOTING. Residents of swing states affected by Sandy -- including Virginia, North Carolina, and New Hampshire -- are also less likely to battle the elements and get themselves to out to vote early, a process well under way in East Coast battlegrounds. While Maryland is the only state where the governor has officially canceled early voting, more cancellations are possible in the next week. Early voting has traditionally benefited Democrats more than Republicans, and in an election year where turnout is key for the president, that's troubling news for his campaign.

OBAMA'S TEST. Hurricane Sandy is a critical test for Obama. Times of crisis have historically been moments for sitting presidents to shine and demonstrate leadership, or to fail while the spotlight is on. While Obama can gin up goodwill if the federal government's response is perceived to be adequate, a bungled response akin to the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina would be devastating.

VOTER PSYCHOLOGY. Even if the Obama administration's response to the storm is perfect, if there is widespread destruction or extended power outages, Hurricane Sandy will likely weigh on voters' minds. It's possible that Americans will take out their frustration on Obama by voting against him or staying home. Of course, at a time when they are so dependent on the government, some may wonder about Romney's determination to shrink the government -- particularly his past statements that emergency response should be handled by states and possibly the private sector.

ELECTION DAY OUTAGE. The nightmare scenario is that the consequences of the storm linger until November 6 and communities are still without power (an engineer at John Hopkins, for instance, predicted that 10 million could be without power from Northern Virginia to New Jersey). Few election officials have prepared for a scenario in which electronic booths are rendered useless, or voters continue to be displaced or otherwise unable to get to their polling location.

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Naureen Khan is a staff reporter at National Journal.

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