So what does Romney do now?

If the hurricane freezes the presidential race in place, it's not good news for the GOP nominee

Published October 30, 2012 12:28PM (EDT)

It will take days to catalog the full destruction from Hurricane Sandy and to calculate the clean-up cost, and the storm figures to dominate the news for the immediate future. Figuring out how this might impact the presidential race is a guessing game. There’s no precedent for a catastrophic weather event like this coming just days before such a close national election. But potential problems for both candidates jump out.

For Romney, the downside is obvious: Sandy has for now frozen the race in place – and where the race is right now isn’t good for him. If the election were held this moment, Barack Obama would probably be returned to office for a second term. The president is at best tied with Romney in the national horserace and at worst behind by a point, but he holds clear advantages in the most important battleground states and is much better-positioned to reach 270 electoral votes.

Romney needs to shore up states like Virginia and Colorado and erase stubborn gaps in Ohio or Wisconsin and Iowa before next Tuesday. Momentum alone doesn’t seem like it will get him there. He surged in the wake of the first debate in Denver, but the race has settled into place since then. For lack of a better term, Romney is in need of some kind of jolt that would fix his swing state problem.

Sandy severely complicates this task. For one thing, it has overtaken the presidential campaign as the top national story and will continue to do so for several days. Obama, as the president, has an obvious place in this story. The actions of the White House and the response of the federal government are integral to the clean-up, and Obama has a platform to showcase his presidential leadership. Romney, though, has no official role, and really can’t force his way into the story. There’s also the matter of unseemliness – it wouldn’t look too good for Romney to keep right on campaigning as the rest of the country takes stock of a natural disaster. Thus did Romney cancel events yesterday and again today.

But he has to do something to stay visible, so Romney is today attending what his campaign is billing as a “storm relief event” in Ohio with Nascar driver Richard Petty and Randy Owen of country music fame. Attendees are being asked to bring canned goods and other disaster relief supplies or to make donations to the Red Cross. Romney may speak but his remarks probably won’t be political in nature. This is probably the best his campaign can do today, just getting images of him showing some concern for the victims of the storm into the news media.

Perhaps by Thursday the campaign as we’ve known it will resume, although even then Romney will have to strike a delicate balance. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for Romney to make the swing state strides he needs by November 6, but losing several days of campaigning and media coverage does make it harder.

There are two risks for Obama. The obvious one is that he stands to be blamed for any perceived shortcomings in the federal government’s response to the storm. This is the flip-side of being president during a natural disaster. It’s an opportunity to show leadership, but you’re also on the hook for just about anything that goes wrong, even if it’s out of your control. The good news for Obama on this front is that the reviews of his performance seem positive right now; even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a top Romney supporter, offered praise for the president last night. But it’s a volatile situation; a lot can still happen.

Another potential problem for Obama involves the popular vote. Sandy is mainly affecting the Northeast. There are a few swing states in the region, like New Hampshire and (sort of) Pennsylvania, but this is basically Obama country. However, Obama hasn’t been performing as well here as he should be. It’s not that he’s in danger of losing states like New Jersey and Connecticut, but his margins are down significantly from 2008, more so than in other regions. This may be the reason that a popular vote/Electoral College disconnect is possible; unimpressive wins in the Northeast won’t cost Obama any electoral votes, but they would drag down his standing in the national popular vote.

To avoid that situation, Obama needs strong turnout from the region’s Democratic-friendly voters. Part of this can be accomplished through aggressive voter mobilization efforts and (where it’s permitted) early voting. Sandy makes this a lot tougher; already, two days of early voting in Maryland have been cancelled (although Governor Martin O’Malley did add one make-up day). Obama was already facing an enthusiasm issue among blue state Democrats. If they are preoccupied for the next week with the fallout from Sandy (no power, closed roads, damage to personal property), it could give them another reason to stay home next week – especially if they figure their states are already in Obama’s column anyway.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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