The most damaging hurricanes are usually described as either wind or water events. When it comes to the impact of Hurricane Sandy on Election 2012, “power event” will probably be the more apt description.
As Sandy approached landfall on the East Coast on Monday afternoon, it became clear that the biggest political impact was likely to be in Virginia, one of the most hotly contested swing states of the year and the likeliest of those battlegrounds to get smacked by the storm.
The central challenge of the storm that campaigns and government officials began preparing for Monday was how to allow voting to proceed in the event of power loss. State elections officials announced plans to move polling locations, assured the public that most voting equipment operates on batteries and described arrangements with regional utilities to prioritize the restoration of power at hundreds of polling locations across the commonwealth.
Additionally, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) urged local registrars to extend absentee voting hours later in the week to make up for the disruption caused by the closure of dozens of early voting locations Monday and Tuesday.
“Obviously the general election is next Tuesday, and the election is going to have to take place,” said Don Palmer, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections. “There’s nothing in the code to allow for moving Election Day.”
Even before its arrival, Sandy forced President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney to cancel scheduled appearances in Virginia this week at a time when both are heavily contesting a state that ranks as one of the year’s top two or three battlegrounds, along with Ohio and Florida.
The storm also forced the closure of local election offices — and suspension of in-person absentee voting — in 26 localities Monday, most of them in the heavily populated Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regions. Further closures Tuesday were likely.
Obama’s campaign closed field offices in those areas too, as did the two candidates for Senate, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and Republican George F. Allen. A threatening snowstorm could cause further disruptions in the state’s Appalachian region to the west.
Community events that typically give the campaigns a chance to connect with voters were canceled too — including the annual Halloween parade in Leesburg.
“We are urging everyone to take appropriate safety precautions and to follow the guidance of emergency management and public safety officials,” Obama spokeswoman Marianne Von Nordeck said.
Less clear was how damaging the curtailment of voting and campaign activity would be — or to whom. Absentee voting gave Obama a huge boost in Virginia in 2008, and both the Obama and Romney campaigns are keeping their candidates out of a state that they undoubtedly both would have otherwise barnstormed in the final week of the cycle.
“Obviously, we would have preferred clear skies and a continuation of our get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Brian Moran, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “It means we’ll have to redouble our efforts to make sure that our voters have every opportunity to vote.”
The Obama campaign has advertised that former president Bill Clinton will come to Virginia this week — but with the uncertainty of the storm and the damage it will leave in its wake, it’s too soon to know when.
Also unclear is how easily both campaigns will be able to redeploy their field organizations once the storm passes.
“If you’re without power, you’re going to be more worried about cutting down your trees and getting your kids fed and getting your power back on then you are about going door to door,” said Dan Scandling, campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). “Both campaigns are hampered by it.”
However, volunteers for both Obama and Romney in Virginia said they weren’t especially alarmed by the potential for Sandy to set them back politically; their sense was that the storm’s impact would be politically neutral by freezing activity for everyone, and that they would resume the frenetic pace once Sandy had passed.
Barbara Kanninen, a volunteer from Arlington and co-chairwoman of the president’s “Women for Obama” effort in Virginia, said: “I haven’t sensed any frustration on the part of the staff, volunteers or friends. I’m not frustrated, either. Our first priority is everyone’s safety.”
And Christine O’Connor, a dedicated Romney volunteer (also from Arlington) who works five or six days a week for the Republican, said: ”Most Republicans prefer to vote on Election Day, so that’s still good for us. So me personally — I’m not overly concerned that it will have too much of an impact on the actual election. I’m just going to play it by ear to see if we have power!”
Palmer reported that in some localities, absentee voting spiked Monday as a result of voters trying to cast their votes in advance of the storm.
“The registrars are doing a great job maintaining the offices and keeping them open as long as they can,” Palmer said. “We also want to be very sensitive to the safety of people. There will be plenty of opportunities to vote — Thursday, Friday and most probably Wednesday as well, Saturday and obviously Election Day.”
And both sides did what they could as they waited to know more about Sandy’s impact. Scandling dropped off a final batch of postcards urging supporters to get their absentee ballots in at the post office Monday that normally wouldn’t have gone out until Wednesday.
Kaine sent out an e-mail to supporters urging them to temporarily bring in their yard signs so they don’t become projectiles. (Allen, Kaine’s opponent, sent out a fundraising e-mail, something that Kaine and both presidential candidates suspended in advance of the storm).
Several Democrats said they were urging volunteers to make extra phone calls Monday using phone-from-home computer programs. But most of the activity involved watching and waiting — and urging staff, volunteers and voters to stop thinking about politics and stay safe.
As Brandi Hoffine, a spokeswoman for Kaine, put it: “We’ve basically put everything on hold until further notice.”