Once the general-election campaign began, most Republicans figured Mitt Romney would get momentum once he really “introduced himself” to the American public, an introduction that was supposed to begin in earnest at the Republican National Convention in Tampa at the end of August.
But Romney didn’t get much of a bump out of his convention, even though most thought his convention speech was well-written and well-delivered. The television audience for the Republican convention just wasn’t there — and there’s a good chance that Hurricane Isaac was a reason. The storm forced the cancellation of the first night of the convention, and its approach and landfall on the Gulf Coast provided a dramatic competing news event, keeping the public’s mind away from politics during those days. Instead, Romney made his real public “debut” to millions of Americans at the first debate, which had more than twice the television audience of the GOP convention, and it has been a much closer race ever since.
Few news events eat up news coverage the way a hurricane does — it is slow-moving enough to eat up newscasts morning, noon, and night, with hourly updates and dramatic video. Even if most Americans don’t live in an affected state, most know someone who lives in one of the coastal states. Chances are, we’ll be seeing saturation coverage (no pun intended) until at least Wednesday, maybe beyond if the storm leaves significant messes in its wake in the Washington–New York–Boston corridor.
The first political impact of Sandy is an interruption of early voting in the affected states. Some states, like Pennsylvania, don’t have much early voting, but Virginia does (technically, it’s in-person filling out of absentee ballots), and 10 of Virginia’s 95 counties have suspended voting for today.
Presumably most of the folks who would have voted early today will vote as soon as the storm clears, or on Election Day, so this shouldn’t drive down turnout very much. But all of the voter-contact operations scheduled for today and tomorrow — the phone banking, the door-knocking, etc. — are now either on hold or greatly minimized. The Romney campaign has effectively stopped campaigning until Wednesday, except for one event in Iowa, and the president will be off the trail (although at this hour, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton are still campaigning).
Then there’s the issue of power outages. There’s not much point in running television ads or geographically targeted web ads in places where people don’t have electricity to turn on their televisions or computers.
In the places that still have power, the campaigns will have to be careful with their tone. For the next few days, negative attacks have a much higher risk of backfiring. This would appear to be a challenge to the Obama campaign, as they’re still running extremely negative attack ads on television. Then again, as we’ve watched Romney’s steady increase in the polls and Obama hit that 47 percent ceiling, the heavily negative approach doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps Sandy would be doing the campaign a favor, by forcing them to shift to their (presumably positive) closing message a week early.
On television this morning, there was some talk that the storm would help Obama “look presidential.” Of course, “looking presidential” really shouldn’t be much of a problem for an incumbent president.
Perhaps the best “narrative” to come out of the storm for President Obama will be a sense that FEMA and all of the federal agencies are responding quickly and appropriately to the storm, and those few remaining undecided or wavering voters will feel better about him as a manager and leader during a crisis. The best “narrative” for Romney will be that for the final week of the campaign, the negative attacks stop and the race is frozen in place at this strong point for Romney — a lead in most of the national polls, good news in all of the state polling except for PPP, finally a poll showing a lead in Ohio, a big enthusiasm gap in favor of Republicans. Finally, if the power’s gone out, the neighborhood is a mess, trees are down everywhere, the gas stations are out of gasoline, etcetera . . . it’s hard to see that stirring up enthusiasm for the incumbent.