As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the East Coast, campaigns are scrambling to deal with the storm’s impact and many will be forced to adjust well-laid GOTV plans just a week ahead of Election Day.
Throughout the battleground state of Virginia, most presidential campaign offices were closed on Monday, while the few that were open had plans to send volunteers home early as weather conditions deteriorated.
Both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have altered their campaign schedules as a result of the storm. Obama canceled a Tuesday campaign rally in Wisconsin, while Romney canceled a Monday event, as well as all of the campaign’s planned stops on Tuesday. Sandy is certain to impact a number of presidential battleground states—even Ohio is expected to feel the effects.
For campaigns, the storm will alter critical last minute planning tasks, including GOTV operations, which have ground to a halt in many parts of the Mid Atlantic. The biggest worry for both presidential campaigns, says Republican strategist Phillip Stutts, is that efforts to turn out unreliable voters in states like Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire have now stalled.
“Since these are unreliable voters and early voting locations are shut down, it might push that voter to not vote,” warns Stutts. He thinks campaigns are likely to shift non-target states to make GOTV calls into battlegrounds affected by the storm, but messaging will have to be adjusted.
“Phone and email scripts will need to be sensitive to the devastation that a particular voter may be going through,” Stutts says. “So the message is more important than the messenger.”
Brian Donahue, a partner with political media and digital firm CRAFT, points to Virginia and Pennsylvania as the two presidential states likely to be affected most. Donahue is urging campaigns to repurpose their social media channels to report on storm warnings and info being dispatched by emergency responders.
“Political campaigns have developed powerful tools to quickly disseminate information,” Donahue says. “With these capabilities, campaigns in affected areas should be encouraged to use their communications channels for better serving the public interest in a time of emergency.”
Campaigns can certainly take advantage of digital tactics to keep voters engaged over the next few days, but Donahue also warns that sensitivity to those impacted by Sandy will remain an issue even after the storm subsides.
“[Campaigns] must have situational awareness and use absolute caution in how much focus they place on politics in light of personal safety concerns,” he says.
Another potential side effect of the storm: problems for pollsters in states that see widespread power outages. Assuming the power and phone lines don’t go down, says Democratic pollster Margie Omero, the millions of additional people stuck in their homes could boost response rates. But given the forecast, it’s not a likely scenario. Significant power outages in Northern Virginia, for example, will prevent pollsters from even going into the field with a survey.
“No doubt it will hurt GOTV efforts, door-knocking, and anything else requiring available volunteers,” says Omero. “At the presidential level, I’m not sure it helps one candidate more than the other.”
Republican strategist Chris Russell runs a direct mail firm in Southern New Jersey, which is expected to take the brunt of the impact from Hurricane Sandy. He says local campaigns along the New Jersey coast have completely shut down their operations.
“Mail and phones are grinding to a halt, travel is severely restricted, and GOTV shifts are getting cancelled and moved around,” says Russell. “Everyone is doing their best to deal with the circumstances, but something like this is pretty unprecedented so close to Election Day.”
With no roadmap on how campaigns should handle the aftermath and with just days to go before Nov. 6, Russell says campaigns will need to simply regroup later this week to lay out a new game plan.
“You just need smart people on the ground to improvise and make the best out of a bad situation,” Russell says.