Is Hurricane Sandy a Gale-Force October Surprise?

Hurricane Sandy will go down in history not just as the largest Atlantic storm to hit the United States, but also as the October surprise that no political operative could orchestrate — or predict.

Both presidential campaigns said they were devoted to leaving the politics out of the storm, as operatives for both accused the other campaign of politicking. Both suspended overt campaigning, with President Obama returning to the White House but using former President Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden on the trail, and Mitt Romney turning his Ohio rally today into a food drive for hurricane relief. Phone banking and ad buys continued as usual.

But as the winds died down on the Eastern seaboard and the downpours turned to occasional showers, there was no denying that the deadly, devastating storm would leave its mark on the election landscape as well.

One of the initial concerns was about how the hurricane warnings and precautions would affect early voting. As Sandy churned across the northeast and took out power in nearly 8 million households, concern turned to whether voting offices and equipment would be up and running as utility crews gave estimates of 7 to 10 days to restore juice in hard-hit areas. White House press secretary Jay Carney was even asked at Monday’s briefing whether Obama was pondering a way to alter the election schedule.

The storm has even interrupted daily tracking polls by which campaigns and pundits live and breathe, as Gallup announced it would follow Monday’s poll freeze with another poll-less day due to Sandy.

But when is it appropriate for candidates to return to targeted campaigning in crucial swing states? How might the storm affect the vote by sweeping all other issues off the front page? For all the cloud cover of the hurricane, how much does it turn the presidential race into a contest of optics?

“My message to the federal government: no bureaucracy; no red tape; get resources where they’re needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration, because the recovery process obviously in a place like New Jersey is going to take a significant amount of time,” Obama said in a trip to the American Red Cross today. “The recovery process in lower Manhattan is going to take a lot of time.”

Obama was praised for that recovery assistance, advanced by declaring New Jersey a major disaster area, repeatedly today by a Republican governor who has been stumping for Romney. New Jersey’s Chris Christie said the president “has been incredibly supportive and helpful to our state and not once did he bring up the election.”

When asked on Fox News this morning whether Romney would come to New Jersey to tour storm damage with the governor, Christie replied, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested.”

“I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff,” he added. “I have a job to do.”

As politics invariably creep in to most disasters, Obama will get valuable optics in the last days before the election when he stands side by side with Christie in touring the hurricane devastation.

“Tomorrow afternoon, the President will travel to New Jersey where he will join Governor Christie in viewing the storm damage, talking with citizens who are recovering from the storm and thanking first responders who put their lives at risk to protect their communities,” Carney, who didn’t hold a press briefing today, announced in a statement this afternoon.

Romney is expected to attend a campaign event with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in Tampa tomorrow. He told the Ohio crowd today that he’d spoken with some governors whose states were affected by the storm, but there was no update on whether he’d visit any of those states after Tampa.

A parade of politicians across the airwaves today — save for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) trying to draw attention to the Benghazi scandal — kept focus on the storm’s damage to their districts and recovery efforts.

“You see all these power lines and gas lines that are broken,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), whose 6th congressional district runs up the coast from Asbury Park inland to Plainfield, on CNN today. “…The devastation is unbelievable, homes that are, you know, carried away, destroyed. In Long Branch, two-thirds of the boardwalk is destroyed.”

“Houses are moved off their foundations,” Christie told a press conference today. “There are houses in the middle of Route 35.”

The governor said he’d been able to see pictures of the famed coastline relayed back to his command center from a police helicopter.

“The level of devastation at the Jersey Shore is unthinkable …to prepare the public for what they’re going to see, it is beyond anything I thought I’d ever see, terrible.”

With his 4th congressional district reaching from the Pennsylvania border to the ocean, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said on MSBNC that the coastal areas in his region — Point Pleasant, Belmar, Avon-by-the-Sea — are “absolutely devastated.”

Smith credited Christie with perhaps “saving many people’s lives” with his no-nonsense pulling together of the state’s resources and ordering evacuations in preparation for the storm.

“Everyone needs to be thinking as soon as we get out of this emergency mode, we go right into repair and obviously that’s where FEMA and, you know, the insurance needs to be accessed as quickly as possible,” the congressman said. “Because, you know, we’re approaching winter. So the sooner the rebuilding starts, the sooner people are back in their homes.”

Winter began full-force in mountainous inland regions thanks to Sandy’s catastrophic collision with a nor’easter, though — creating crippling snow accumulations that could also affect which voters get to the polls. Over the next few days it will become more apparent how this weather event will affect voters, from rural Virginia voters who skew Romney to populations in urban areas with flooding and power outages that could chip into Obama’s popular vote.

For Obama to be damaged by the storm, his federally directed efforts would have to be a Katrina-like failure or his appearances at disaster sites would have to be roundly interpreted as a photo op, even given the commander in chief’s job. Romney could be damaged by a presidential-caliber performance from Obama or by visiting a disaster site, which would be more likely to be spun into a photo op than an incumbent’s visit. Either man could be hurt by election irregularities.

Three possible Senate captures for the GOP are also in affected states: Connecticut, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, summed it up on Twitter three days before Sandy made landfall.

“Well timed Frankenstorm. Week before election, pols will stay home and fall all over themselves to serve us,” Sabato wrote. “Need power restored? Fallen tree removed? Call a candidate.”

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