Hurricane Sandy has fundamentally altered the political landscape in the final days before next week’s election, forcing the campaigns of both President Obama and Mitt Romney to hit the reset button as campaigning begins to resume Wednesday.
Before Sandy rolled through, a nasty presidential contest was practically sprinting toward the finish line with campaigns and outside groups dumping millions on last-minute messaging and ramping up for the final GOTV push.
But in the wake of the storm’s destruction, early voting has been curtailed in some states, operatives have had to re-work their GOTV plans and the campaign’s hot rhetoric has cooled. While the campaign more or less resumes today, the environment has shifted dramatically. After canceling a number of campaign stops over the past two days, Romney is back on the trail in Florida while the president remains in disaster relief mode.
The challenge for both campaigns over the next few days: getting the politics of the moment right. Here’s a look at five ways the campaign has changed:
TONE: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has been one of the president’s most vocal critics campaigning across the country in support of Romney over the past few weeks. But on Tuesday, Christie had nothing but praise for Obama and for his administration’s response to Sandy, calling it “outstanding” and refusing to even broach the topic of presidential politics.
It underscores the difficulty both candidates will face over the next few days when it comes to the tone of the campaign. Strategists say it’s highly unlikely the race will see a return to the sort of negativity that has characterized the final weeks, and both candidates will have to tread carefully when trying to land punches in the final days.
“The tone of the campaign needs to be elevated to one of concern,” says Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who predicts the campaign won’t actually look all that different over the next week “other than ending on a higher tone.”
When it comes to the negativity, Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf thinks the onus is more on the president than his Republican challenger.
“The president’s timing has to be very good,” says Sheinkopf. “You’re allowed to be a leader in the rescue efforts, but you’re not allowed to politicize it.”
Bottom line, says Sheinkopf: “It’s going to be hard to have a nasty campaign when the world financial capital and the surrounding area are bleeding.”
TURNOUT: The amount of time campaigns have to motivate and mobilize their voters just shrunk dramatically. As the storm approached, and in its aftermath, GOTV efforts in a couple of key states were impacted in a major way.
On Monday, GOTV practically ground to a halt in the swing state of Virginia. Efforts in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire were also impacted. The result has been the loss of critical days of door-knocking, turnout calls and just about anything requiring volunteers.
Republican strategist Phillip Stutts told C&E earlier in the week that the greatest concern for both campaigns should be the delay of efforts to turnout “unreliable voters” in states like Virginia and New Hampshire.
“Since these are unreliable voters and early voting locations are shut down, it might push that voter to not vote,” said Stutts.
Most importantly, it will require both campaigns to be nimble in the final stretch, says Rollins, who managed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign.
“These are two large campaigns that have unlimited resources and will make the changes necessary,” he says.
The stalled GOTV efforts will also be felt by campaigns down the ballot as congressional and even local contests will be forced to re-think some of their targets and their schedules.
ADVERTISING: Utility companies have warned that it could take more than a week to restore power in the worst-hit portions of New York and New Jersey. Power outages also remain in parts of Virginia and in the Philadelphia suburbs. It means plenty of voters are missing TV ads with just days to go.
In some areas, ad strategies are already being altered to account for prolonged blackouts—Patrick McGee of Katz Media Group says there are signs that campaigns are buying more radio to compensate.
“We’ve been fielding some phone calls from campaigns in the northeast quarter [of Pennsylvania] seeking radio availabilities because televisions are without power,” McGee says.
Mike Moschella, national political director at the Truman National Security Project, thinks it’s one of the biggest post-storm impacts on the Romney campaign.
“Romney was playing catch up, and Hurricane Sandy deprived him of a couple days worth of air time—kind of like a football team down by a touchdown with 6 minutes left in the fourth, and they now have only 3 minutes left on the clock,” he says.
UNCERTAINTY: The time for calculation in the campaign’s final days is now nonexistent. Both campaigns will have to get back to full speed under an enormous amount of scrutiny and it’s hard to predict how voters will react to the full-throated resumption of the campaign.
The reality, says Hank Sheinkopf, is that no one really knows what the ultimate impact of the storm will be. There’s no roadmap and there’s no precedent for an event of this magnitude just days before a national election.
“This makes it more difficult for both [candidates],” he says. “I don’t know that there’s an edge to be had here.”
One of the lines Democrats will try to push in the campaign’s final days: the president’s response to the storm was immediate, efficient and quite presidential.
“Obama’s response has been met with critical acclaim, with even folks like Chris Christie publicly applauding him,” says Moschella.
POLLING: Not that national numbers matter much at this point in the cycle anyway, but given the number of Americans impacted by Sandy, the reliability of any national polls taken over the next week will be in question.
On Monday, Gallup suspended its daily tracking poll, citing the storm. The organization is expected to make a decision sometime Wednesday on whether or not to resume its presidential tracking.
The problem is that pollsters are losing interviews in major areas like Northern Virginia and the Philly suburbs.
After Sunday, Democratic pollster Stefan Hankin says any numbers from Monday or Tuesday are pretty much a wash—with Wednesday’s and Thursday’s likely to be as well. His recommendation: “Stop looking at the numbers.”
Democratic pollster Margie Omero says it doesn’t make sense to poll in certain battlegrounds if widespread power outages and other problems persist through the week.
“If power and phones are down, then polling is not methodologically sound,” she says. “Better to not poll then get wrong information.”