Sandy's potential impact on the elections

By Erin McCann
01:35 PM
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After Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast one week before voting day, political pundits nationwide are pitching their theories on what impact – if any – the superstorm may have on elections.

As of Nov. 1, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed President Obama, citing climate change as the deciding factor; Romney disciple and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has extended uncharacteristic compliments toward the president following Obama’s swift response to Sandy, and even criticized a Fox News reporter for playing politics in the aftermath of a natural disaster – which media outlets voraciously snatched up and regurgitated as sensationalized campaign fodder.

So, where splintered parts of these states lie in ruins, and city dwellers are left to rebuild their tattered and waterlogged homes, while power for some has yet to be restored, and a renowned GOP darling carols accolades toward the democratic commander in chief – what has changed for presidential elections?

Current polls say: ‘not too much.’

But others opine that elections could very well be affected, yet.

“Academic studies on the effects of natural disasters on elections have produced somewhat ambiguous results,” writes Nate Silver, statistician and blogger for The New York Times. “But [they] don’t contradict the intuitive notion that a disaster response that seems well managed could help an incumbent, while a botched response (especially if the storm damage is severe) could harm him.”

“I think the logistics of the election are going to be problematic,” says Thad Hall, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. “We’re talking about having polling places up and running,” an endeavor that he says will be a “huge undertaking.”

Gov. Christie echoed similar sentiments during a Wednesday evening press conference: “I’d like to have the polling places powered up for next Tuesday,” he said. “I would like that. I’m not yet to the point where I know whether we’re going to be able to do that or we’re not going to be able to do that.”

As of Friday afternoon, more than 100,000 people in Somerset County, N.J. were still without power. Officials say Franklin Township, within the county, currently has five polling stations closed and sans power. 

In Hall’s opinion, whether or not every polling place is open on voting day, the hurricane still won’t significantly affect the Electoral College. It may marginally affect the popular vote, he adds, as the affected states largely vote Democratic in presidential elections.

“[The hurricane] could affect the size of overall popular vote, so you could end up with a situation like in 2000 where Al Gore wins the popular vote but loses the presidency, and you could have the reverse happen with Obama – he wins the presidency but doesn’t win the popular vote,” Hall adds.

On top of this, Hall says Gov. Christie’s positive remarks toward Obama certainly didn’t hurt the president’s image. “If you think of it from a political perspective, this has obviously been very good for the president because he got to be seen being complimented profusely by the man who gave the keynote address at the Republican Convention,” he says. “That’s obviously very positive for the president.”

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Despite this potential image-booster for Obama, Hall anticipates that state and local elections may be significantly more impacted.

“I don’t necessary think [the storm] will be a problem for the presidential election,” he says. “I do, however, think it could affect more localized races.”

He points out that the hurricane crippled many densely populated areas, and that can affect local legislative races, and even House or Senate races. “If half of the district is washed out, and [the other] half is kind of washed out, but [the people] can still have places to vote, and those people didn’t have to evacuate,” Hall says this could sway certain elections.

Many states struck by the hurricane have already extended the deadline for absentee ballots. On Thursday, for instance, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, via executive order, extended the deadline for completed absentee ballots from Nov. 2 to Monday, Nov. 5. New York, New Jersey and Virginia officials also followed suit.