While Sandy may not have a significant effect on the strategies of the presidential campaigns (the portions of the Northeast hardest hit are firmly in Obama’s corner), there are a serious number of hotly contested races at the federal and state levels in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Since the storm hit with only a week out to Election Day, considerable (and perhaps unprecedented) campaign chaos is certain in those down-ballot races.
First, there’s the mail. Even with the rise of the internet, direct mail remains the most effective way to reach voters — especially seniors, the largest class of high propensity voters. With mail delivery stalled for days, it is likely that critical last minute GOTV (Get Out The Vote) mailings may not reach voters before Tuesday; even if they do, mailings that were scheduled incrementally throughout last week will end up landing all at once, probably on Monday and/or Tuesday, a situation dreaded by campaigns because messages become confused or objects of annoyance if not completely lost to the trash.
But even more significant is the disruption of the ground game. Tight races can be won or lost through the volume and tactical deployment of volunteers. This is particularly important in the last week and on Election Day itself – knocking on doors as well as offering transportation to the polls. In suburban, exurban and rural communities, both efforts require cars: but with gas shortages and rationing, how can a campaign ask a volunteer to use his or her own gasoline for GOTV when people are more concerned with having enough gas to go to work, to the market, or to take the kids to school next week?
To make matters worse, in some locations (eg. parts of Long Island, Staten Island, the Rockaways, and coastal New Jersey), hurricane destruction has meant that polling sites have been consolidated, making travel longer and more inconvenient for some. Less enthusiastic voters who might have been persuadable may now find going to the polls too inconvenient and too wasteful of precious gasoline — they will just stay home. Moreover, in hard hit areas, a lot of people may be just too fatigued or depressed to even care about the election at all, particularly if they understand that in their state, the presidential race is all but a fait accompli for Obama (thanks to the outdated Electoral College).
And, finally, there’s the general psychological exhaustion, exacerbated by the storm. Ads running early last week were often pre-empted because of the constant updates and press conferences. In some areas, they didn’t air all week because of loss of power (which continues in spots). However, where and when ads did air, was anyone really paying attention? Or worse: for those awaiting further news of the devastation or for emergency instructions, a political ad might appear even more irritating than usual; after all, the public already has a pretty low opinion of politicians and electeds.
So, I don’t envy those campaign staffers working for congressional or state legislative campaigns. Essentially, except for automated phone calls (robo calls), that some voters find annoying, the competitive campaigns have lost all control; it’s practically now a roll of the dice. At this point, campaign exhaustion is high under normal conditions (and for most staff, productivity relative to compensation is similar to that experienced by workers in the Industrial Revolution) – but this year, the 20-hour days, pulling out of hair, short tempers and nail biting are sure to reach record levels.
So if you see a poor staffer out there, even if you don’t support his or her candidate, give ‘em a hug or a cup of coffee…they are, in the end, working for our democracy. To paraphrase Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts folks, it’s going to be a rocky election night.