I don’t want to obsess about Hurricane Sandy, but since its effects could become serious before I get back to blogging on Monday, just wanted to mention the ever-increasing probability that this storm will wreak political havoc as well as threatening life and property. Let me reiterate: the political effects are not as important as keeping Americans out of direct harm, but they could matter.
It’s hard, of course, to quantify the risks of Sandy’s political effects. The most obvious, of course, will be in terms of the massive distraction it will provide from political messaging and early voting activity in states ranging from Florida to Ohio to Maine–a distraction that continue right on up to Election Day in places where there is significant physical damage (or loss of life). Then there’s the possible impact, positive or negative, in perceptions of how well federal, state and local governments are performing in the emergency.
Power outages are very likely in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, and could spread wider. As most people know from their own experience, such outages can last for a number of days if more pressing emergencies are present. Lost along with everything else would be tens of millions of dollars worth of political messages.
You get the idea: you can stare at polls and look at election forecasting models all you want, but this storm has just thrown a big question mark into everything we know about the cycle. As the New York Times put it in its usual understated way:
The storm is approaching in the middle of preparations for the presidential election on Nov. 6 and could disrupt plans for early voting in some areas, with unpredictable results. Mark McKinnon, a former media strategist for President George W. Bush who went on to found No Labels, a group promoting bipartisanship, said that the hurricane brought to the campaigns something they both dread: uncertainty.
“Campaigns are all about control,” he said. “So in the closing days, they fear any external events that could disrupt the game plan. Ain’t no leashes for Mother Nature.”
I doubt the Obama campaign had the weather in mind when it decided to put such an emphasis on getting people to vote as early as possible. But in some states, that might have been a smart bet. We’ll wait and see, and pray for the minimum peril.