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What Hurricane Sandy Means for Election Day

If you’re one of the many folks in my Twitter feed who’s feeling a general unease because Hurricane Sandy and Election Day are in close proximity, I want you to relax a little. Not all the way, just a little. 

Come Nov. 6, the Eastern seaboard will not be in total disarray. Hurricane Sandy is hitting the East Coast early enough that most of its effects will probably be ameliorated by Election Day. Of course, it’s not called a natural disaster for nothing. But there's no need to worry about the utter breakdown of the democratic process in the Northeast. Instead, pay attention to which select groups of voters might face storm-related trouble on Election Day, and how Obama reacts to the storm.

Broadly, there are two ways that Hurricane Sandy could throw Election Day into a funk. First, damage caused by the storm could make it harder for certain people to vote. John Hudak, a governance fellow at the Brookings Institute, reassures me that it would take a really unconscionable amount of damage to suppress voting in swing states—Pennsylvania and Virginia—as voters there get just how close the race is. They could, however, be screwed out of voting by impassible roads, a risk that applies heavily to those rural (Republican) voters who live a solid 20 or 30 minutes from their polling place. Add the blizzard barreling toward western Virginia, where Romney is ahead, and Sandy could mean a handier victory for Obama. (Hudak says reports that Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia can postpone the election for 14 days may be erroneous. According to his reading of the law, McDonnell can only exercise that power over state races—not the presidential election. In fact, there isn't very much legal guidance for elections and natural disasters at all. So, suppose that a third effect of a very disastrous Sandy is a heyday for campaign lawyers.)

On the other hand, widespread, persistent power loss would force polling places to either procure generators to run electronic voting machines or to issue paper ballots. The latter would mean extraordinarily long lines in more densely trafficked polling places, not unlike the lines that turned off urban (Democratic) voters in Cleveland in 2004. Turned-off voters in urban centers like New York, Connecticut, or Maryland wouldn’t cost Obama those states. But as Alec MacGillis pointed out last week, depressed Democratic turnout would exaggerate the slim but real chance that Obama wins in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. Suspended early voting in blue states like Maryland poses the same risk for Obama.

Second, the administration’s response to the hurricane aftermath could leave Obama looking very good or very bad. It’s unpleasant to think about, but Obama’s handling of Sandy could marginally improve his standing in the polls—if it has a measurable effect at all. Although studies tend to find that natural disasters boost a president’s reelection chances, so long as his disaster response is competent, Hudak points out that the U.S. has never experienced such a wide scale natural disaster so close to Election Day. That renders these studies less instructive, and it could nullify the effects of a massive screw-up. “If [Obama] botches something on Thursday,” Hudak notes, “we might not know about it until next Thursday.”

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One thing is certain, Hudak says, which is, Obama’s response will dominate media coverage. And provided that Obama doesn’t tell anyone he’s doing a “heckuva job” when he’s patently not, Obama will probably exit Sandy’s aftermath appearing in command and in control. What positive effects this could have for him (Would this bring new voters into Obama’s column? How many?) may not be quantifiable, but Romney’s general disadvantage is pretty clear. “Everything is going to be about the storm, the governors, and the president,” Hudak says. “And all the super PAC money in the world can’t buy Romney the attention that the president is going to get in the next few days.”

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden