The Sandy Effect: Hurricane Could Disrupt Voting And Polls

Hurricane Sandy, currently on a direct course for the East Coast, is sending residents across multiple states scrambling to prepare for heavy wind, rain, and snow. The Obama and Romney campaigns are surely taking stock of its effects as well.

The implications for the election are uncertain, as is the path and extent of the storm’s damage. But given that it’s projected to directly impact such states as North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, there’s plenty of potential for disruption.

In Virginia, the storm is already poised to wreck a scheduled joint rally with President Clinton and president Obama on Monday. Romney has already cancelled a Virginia Beach event for Sunday. Early voting is less widespread in the state than others like Ohio, since Virginia only accepts absentee votes, so the impact could be minimized at the ballot box if things are back to normal by election day.

That said, if there’s major flooding or snow, where it hits could have an influence. While the coast is evenly divided between swing counties, other regions are more polarized.

“It depends on where it hits and how much, it’s just impossible to say in advance,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told TPM. “If Obama were directing the snowstorm it would be in the Shenandoah valley and Southwest Virginia as they want as low a turnout as possible in those rural areas. If Romney were directing the snowstorm, it would go right down the corridor from Northern Virginia into Richmond, which is where Obama’s votes come from.”

There’s some precedent for these types of problems. In 1985, Doug Wilder won a tight race for Lt. Governor amid major flooding in conservative rural counties that officials said at the time made some precincts virtually inaccessible.

Ohio is another place to watch. Heavy snow could make things more difficult in the many smaller counties where Romney is expected to dominate, but if it hits the more Democratic northwest corner of the state that could have an outsize impact on early voting. Speaking of early voting, it can’t hurt that Democrats already have a big lead banked before whatever weather heads their way.

A rough storm “could put a damper on turnout, especially in rural areas where it is harder to get to polling places,” according to Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State. “Weather can overcome voting intentions for those who are not strongly motivated to vote,” he added.

Similarly in Pennsylvania, heavy storms in Philadelphia seem likely, where Democrats overwhelmingly dominate. But the more Republican suburbs and even more Republican rural parts of the state out west could be more susceptible to heavy snows or power outages, making voter turnout difficult for the other side depending on which way the wind blows. But since there’s no early voting in Pennsylvania, it seems unlikely this would do more than just disrupt the campaigns and distract from their final messages.

Finally, the storm could have an impact on the final round of public opinion polls as well, making it hard to get accurate data in swing states facing severe weather conditions. Phone line and power outages could make it hard to call voters in certain areas, for example, or throw off the usual daily routines that pollsters rely on to reach respondents. Tom Jensen of Democratic pollster PPP, which plans on running about 20 more surveys before election day, told TPM they’re worried about the potential impact from Sandy.

“We’re certainly not going to poll any state if/while it’s getting bombarded,” Jensen said in an e-mail.

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