Could the deadly Hurricane Sandy, headed for the East Coast, have an impact on the election?
The storm is already affecting campaign schedules -- Romney has canceled a planned rally in Virginia Beach. While the storm is expected to have passed by Nov. 6, it could leave flooding, power outages and destruction in its wake that would make it hard for voters to get to the polls. Two key states -- Virginia and North Carolina -- are in the path of the storm. So is Pennsylvania, a Democratic-leaning state that Republicans often eye. Rain showers and wind have already hit the coast of Florida. Parts of Ohio will feel the effects.
A senior adviser to President Obama said that the campaign doesn't expect the storm to be a major issue. But according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Politics, bad weather generally helps Republicans -- better weather, the authors say, would have won Al Gore Florida in 2000. Another study, from 2004, found that "voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks."
Obama's campaign has put a heavy emphasis on early voting -- in part, he has told voters, in case of bad weather on Election Day. Early voting numbers seem to favor Democrats, although Republicans are performing better than in 2008. So far, 50 percent of early voters in North Carolina are Democrats and 31 percent are Republicans -- about the same breakdown as 2008. Numbers for Virginia and Ohio are not available because the state's don't have party registration, but Democrats are believed to have an edge in Ohio, while Republicans have seen some good signs in Virginia.
Nationally, among people who say they plan to vote early or have already done so, Obama leads 55 to 42 percent, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll. Among those who plan to vote on Election Day, Romney leads 54 to 44 percent.
But only 8 percent of the likely voters who plan to vote early have already done so, according to the poll, conducted Oct. 22 to 25. Another 29 percent plan to vote before Election Day, and a storm that hits next week could make it hard for them to vote at all. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has already sent out a press release saying that "changes to the early voting schedule may be necessary to protect public safety."
Both campaigns' grounds games are equally effective at this point, Post-ABC News suggests. But Democrats rely more on their ground game, so any restrictions on door-knocking and phone-banking in the final days will likely hurt Obama.
There could also be more subtle electoral effects. If Obama handles the crisis well, it would likely boost his image; if he handles it poorly, it could damage it. The president held a conference call Friday with emergency management officials, directing FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate towards preparations. The electoral impact of severe weather, one study finds, is dwarfed by the impact of officials' response to that weather.
If there's a serious crisis, it will make it harder for Romney to attack Obama. But at the same time, Obama will have fewer opportunities to engage with his challenger, who in recent weeks has gained in battleground polls.