Hurricane affects early presidential voting

Updated: 2012-10-30 08:11

By Chen Weihua in New York (China Daily)

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As tens of millions of US citizens living on the East Coast of the United States brace for possible devastation from Hurricane Sandy, few might realize the key role the dramatic weather might play in the close presidential election only eight days away.

The hurricane is expected to affect a large area of the country, including key swing states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio.

Strong winds, heavy rains and snowstorms are expected to cause widespread flooding and power outages.

Already, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has canceled early voting on Monday. Early voting has also been canceled for Monday in Washington DC.

Hurricane affects early presidential voting

A passenger rides a train in New York on Sunday. Hurricane Sandy, which could become the largest storm ever to hit the US, is set to bring much of the East Coast, including New York and Washington, to a virtual standstill in the next few days with battering winds, flooding and the risk of widespread power outages. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said his state will extend early voting hours and restore power quickly to election facilities in the event of power outages. A Washington Post poll released on Sunday revealed that Barack Obama lead Mitt Romney by 51 percent to 47 percent in Virginia, just outside the poll's margin of error. Both candidates have canceled or changed their campaign plans for the coming days due to the hurricane.

Romney has canceled a Tuesday night event in Milford, New Hampshire. The Romney campaign has also stopped sending fundraising emails to places that are expected to be hit by the hurricane, including New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington DC.

After meeting top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials on Sunday to discuss preparations for the weather, Obama, who described the hurricane as a "serious and big storm", left the White House for Florida.

Obama had planned to go ahead with events in Florida on Monday, but he made a last minute decision to cancel the event in Orlando, Florida, on Monday and return to Washington to handle the crisis caused by the storms. He has also canceled his campaign stop in Virginia on Monday and in Colorado on Tuesday to return to the White House to monitor the storm.

Obama has also rescheduled an event in Youngstown, Ohio, on Tuesday with former president Bill Clinton. Ohio is a key swing state which both candidates have battled for the hardest. Obama has events arranged through Thursday in Ohio, Colorado and Nevada.

But as commander in chief, Obama is expected to greatly reduce his campaign time and focus on disaster relief should the hurricane cause widespread damage. Most Americans still remember how the slow response by then president George W. Bush to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 over-shadowed the remainder of his presidency. While an incumbent president can easily attract criticism from people hit by the hurricane, it could also be a time for Obama to demonstrate his strong leadership.

It is believed that Republican candidate Romney will not try to exploit the hurricane to attack Obama. He faced a backlash when he blamed Obama for the handling of the US consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, soon after the incident.

Instead, the Romney campaign has announced plans to collect supplies for potential storm victims in Virginia.

Besides forcing candidates to change their campaign plans in the last few days leading up to the election, there are also concerns that the storm might impact the election in other ways, such as causing damage to polling stations, preventing voters from seeing campaign ads, reducing TV coverage of the election and discouraging undecided voters to travel to polling stations.

With most federal offices in Washington closed on Monday, thousands of flights to the East Coast were canceled, and all public schools in New York, Washington and Boston closed. Much of the public transit system was shut down.

No one seems to know what the real impact of Hurricane Sandy will be on the close presidential race. Opinion polls show the race to be essentially tied at the national level.

A Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll released on Sunday found Obama leading Romney among likely voters by 49 percent to 46 percent. Among all registered voters, Obama held a wider lead of 51 percent to 39 percent.