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Obama dodges a Sandy pitfall in Philadelphia

Hurricane Sandy has wrought havoc on New Jersey and New York, leaving destruction, flooding, power outages and weeks of clean-up behind.

As for the 2012 election, though, it appears to have largely spared the states (relatively speaking, of course) that will determine the presidency — most notably, Pennsylvania.

The Philadelphia skyline in the hours before Hurricane Sandy made landfall. (Jacqueline Larma/Associated Press)

Just before the storm made landfall Monday night, it was headed straight for South Jersey and, by extension, Philadelphia.

That city, of course, is the reason Democrats win elections in Pennsylvania so regularly. With a strong get-out-the-vote operation, Democrats can more than offset their losses in more conservative parts of the state out west.

Had Sandy delivered the kind of damage to Philadelphia that it left behind in neighboring New York and New Jersey, the presidential game would have been changed. Even if elections officials in hard-hit areas can create accessible and well-staffed polling places, getting beleaguered storm sufferers to vote is a whole other problem.

Instead, the storm appears to have largely spared the city, even as power outages and rebuilding are needed in the nearby suburbs.

But the suburbs are a much smaller source of votes for Obama. As The Fix Boss noted this week, in 2004 Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) netted more than 400,000 votes from Philadelphia proper and about 45,000 in each of two key inner suburban counties (Montgomery and Delaware). Kerry lost the rest of the state by 350,000 votes.

Obama, meanwhile, gained 480,000 votes in Philadelphia, 88,000 in Montgomery County and 64,000 in Delaware County in 2008. He lost the rest of the state by 12,000 votes.

Democrats acknowledge that problems could still conceivably lower turnout in a county like Montgomery.

"There could be some places where people (reasonably) get distracted from voting because they're cleaning up from the storm, but I think it will be minimal by Tuesday," said one Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant, granted anonymity to discuss strategy. "It will be incumbent on the campaigns to work their (get-out-the-vote) programs to make sure people remember to vote."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who is also a former mayor of Philadelphia, said problems in the suburbs could linger into next week, but that the city shouldn't be of concern.

"The city itself was almost totally unscathed," Rendell said. "But Peco (the local electrical company) is very good, and they'll have everybody back by Tuesday, easily."

Rendell added: "In some of the Philadelphia suburbs, they may not get power back, but I assume that what will happen is they'll use paper ballots."

Even if there is a turnout dropoff in the suburbs, it's not clear that it will hurt Obama much.

While Obama gains votes in the inner suburbs, the outer suburbs, including Bucks and Chester counties, are more evenly split. As in most big cities, the farther out you get into the suburbs and exurbs, the more conservative voters are.

As of Thursday, the lion's share of remaining power outages are in Bucks County (150,000 of 270,000 statewide, per the Philadelphia Inquirer), while Montgomery County had most of the rest, at 89,000.

Philadelphia was a distant third, with 11,000.

(Peco has already restored power in 75 percent of its 850,000 outages.)

Bucks remains a swing county (Obama won it with 54 percent in 2008), so lower turnout there isn't going to hurt him much. If problems persist in Montgomery, though, that could prevent Obama from racking up a huge margin there.

But that's nothing compared to the problems he would have faced had Philadelphia experienced widespread problems.

Republicans are looking to compete for Pennsylvania, dropping millions on late TV ads in an attempt to make the state competitive.

But if Obama somehow loses there, at least it won't be because of a natural disaster.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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