Meteorology is only one wild card facing the campaigns in the final week. On Election Day, the winner may not be known right away; one or more states may be close enough to merit recounts. In Ohio, which could decide the election, so many provisional ballots may be cast — and by law are not...

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In the dark of night, when they get what little sleep they get these days, the people running the campaigns for president have more than enough fodder for nightmares. Worse, come daybreak, they realize they may yet come true.

Dancing in their heads are visions of recounts, contested ballots and lawsuits. The possibility that their candidate could win the popular vote yet lose the presidency. Even the outside chance of an Electoral College tie that throws the contest to Congress.

Now add to that parade of potential horrors one more: a freak two-in-one, wrath-of-God storm that could, if the more dire forecasts prove correct, warp an election two years and $2 billion in the making.

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Despite the meticulous planning, careful strategizing, polling, advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts, the election could produce the sort of messy outcome that defies expectation and prognostication. Polls show such a tight race between President Obama and Mitt Romney heading into this final week that the two sides are playing out any number of wild possibilities.

The approach of Hurricane Sandy served to remind them just how out of their control democracy can be.

“In terms of how it affects the election, I don’t think anybody really knows,” David Axelrod, the president’s senior strategist, said of the storm on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “Obviously we want unfettered access to the polls because we believe that the more people come out the better we’re going to do. But I don’t know how all the politics will sort out.”

But the 2008 Republican nominee said he thinks the storm could help Obama because it will showcase him in command of an emergency in the final days before the election.

The American people will look to the president as the commander in chief, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on CBS. Voters are likely to see him conducting himself “in fine fashion,” McCain said, and “that might help him a little bit.”

Republicans and Democrats both were unusually focused on the weather during political conversations Sunday, as the end-of-campaign surprise turns out to be not an attack or scandal but rather a hurricane.

The storm forced both candidates to scrap campaign stops, and will require Obama in particular to balance the roles of president in an emergency and candidate with eight days until Election Day. That could benefit or hurt him, depending on how voters view his performance, and distract from efforts by both camps to advance a closing argument.

Early voting, which Obama has counted on to bolster his chances of a second term, will likely grind to a halt in some places along the Eastern Seaboard, while power failures could last much of the week and conceivably until Election Day in some places. It went unnoticed by no one that Virginia, among the most tightly contested states, may be among the most affected.

“The storm will throw havoc into the race,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Meteorology is only one wild card facing the campaigns in the final week. On Election Day, the winner may not be known right away; one or more states may be close enough to merit recounts.

In Ohio, which could decide the election, so many provisional ballots may be cast — and by law are not counted right away — that it may be mid-November before a winner is declared.

Republican Mitt Romney canceled events in Virginia over the weekend, with aides saying he did not want to distract state and local officials from their preparations for the storm’s landfall Monday or Tuesday.

Obama has canceled trips to Northern Virginia on Monday and Colorado Springs on Tuesday. Both areas are critical to the president’s strategy this final week of the campaign.

A key piece of the Obama plan is the operation the campaign has been building for two years to find sporadic voters, win them over and turn them out at the polls during early voting and on Election Day.

Nowhere is this more critical than in Ohio, one of two places where the president still plans to campaign Monday. The other is Florida.

If the president has to cut his travel to the West and Midwest, he has fewer chances to fire up supporters and volunteers to turn out the pro-Obama vote.

Secondly, rain and high winds could keep Obama backers in the Eastern battleground states away from the polls.

The bigger the turnout, the better it goes for the president, Axelrod said when asked about the storm’s potential effect.

“And so, to the extent that it makes it harder, that’s a source of concern,” he said.

Above all, a failure to perform well on the storm front, or to be perceived as shirking his duty, could be more harmful than a few missed opportunities to campaign with suburban women.

Obama advisers say they’ve learned the lessons from President George W. Bush’s widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush was seen as ineffective and out of touch, and his presidency never recovered.

That’s why Obama’s team has moved quickly throughout the year to avoid the impression that the president was shirking his responsibilities, even as the campaign ramped up.

When separate crises struck Colorado this summer — destructive wildfires and a mass shooting at a movie theater — Obama hastily arranged trips to meet with victims and their families. When a hurricane barreled through the Gulf Coast ahead of the Democratic National Convention, the president added a stop in New Orleans to his pre-convention itinerary.

In Virginia, one of the most competitive states in the race, election officials eased absentee-voting requirements for those affected by the storm.

“The state board of elections is already planning for extended hours in advance for absentee voting, and it’s now a priority, moved up to the same level as hospitals and police stations to have power restored,” said Gov. Bob McDonnell, a top Romney ally.

Bringing up a safety concern, the campaign of Democratic Virginia Senate candidate Tim Kaine urged supporters to remove their political yard signs.

“Due to the potential for strong winds in this storm, the last thing we want is for yard signs to become projectiles,” said campaign manager Mike Henry.

Compiled from The New York Times; The Associated Press and The Washington Post

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