Election Storm

Election Storm - Andy Bell blogs from the US

Election Storm

Analysts like to talk about an “October Surprise” in US Presidential elections; an event that comes out of the blue and upsets all the carefully prepared scenarios and strategies just days before the vote.

Well, the Atlantic coast of America has had the most massive surprise this October in the shape of Hurricane Sandy. I say surprise but having been here since Wednesday I can say that the storm’s development has been the constant rumbling backdrop to the election campaign.

But we still don’t know if it will deliver a surprise impact on the result of that election. It’s certainly already having some effect. On Monday morning President Obama woke up in Orlando, ready to do a big rally to help swing the vital state of Florida. But instead he canceled and hopped in Air Force One for a bumpy flight back to Washington.

He has made it clear that he will not be doing any campaigning for at least Monday and Tuesday and Mitt Romney has now said the same. That’s two vital campaigning days lost out of just eight remaining in one of the closest races of modern times. Behind the scenes everyone is speculating about how each candidate must handle this crisis; I say behind the scenes because it would backfire badly if any team were to let slip that somehow they were treating Sandy as a political problem/opportunity.

 So the President said that he wasn’t worried about the election, instead he was worried about families hit by the storm; “the election will look after itself” he said on Monday. But of course both teams are having to manage this. For Team Obama, the first principle is “don’t do a George Bush and Katrina”.

The Obama administration must be seen to be focused and ready to provide to the affected states in a calm and efficient way whatever Federal help is needed. Get that right, the theory goes, and the impression of a President acting calmly in the nation’s hour of need will be worth more votes than any number of canceled campaign speeches.

Mitt Romney has a tricky task to pull off. He can’t campaign too aggressively because that might backfire if voters at the same time are seeing scenes of devastation on their TV screens. But if he goes too quiet he runs the risk of disappearing for a crucial period and allowing Obama to dominate the scene from the Presidential stage.

So Mitt Romney has been stressing how his supporters and his team can help with support and donations for victims of the storm. There is one practical way that Sandy might have more impact.

Both sides are driving hard to get their supporters to vote early. But in affected swing states like Virginia that may be impossible as government offices close and people would find it impossible to stand in line in appalling conditions.

And the storm may mean that the normal monthly employment figures may not be published as usual on Friday because of office closures. Unemployment has been shifting down slightly but is still at a level which gives ammunition to the President’s enemies. So unless there were to be a dramatic fall in unemployment – unlikely – Barack Obama might not be too sorry if there’s no new figure on Friday, and so no new stick with which his opponents might beat him.

As I write this I am sitting in a hotel on the edge of Washington where my team and I took refuge as the storm shifted inland. Will Hurricane Sandy – now blowing around the White House - help determine who is the building’s next resident?