Election in Sandy's shadow

By Bob KingFor

Could Hurricane Sandy be our October surprise?

The possibility of a killer cyclone from the tropics delivering a gut punch to the U.S. East Coast just before Election Day, threatening tens of millions of voters with soggy devastation and a possible burst of snow, was probably not a factor in any candidate's game plan. But it's suddenly all too real.

The National Hurricane Center's latest forecast calls for Sandy to be a Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph winds by the time it hooks into the mid-Atlantic coast early Tuesday morning. It swept through the Bahamas early Friday after killing 29 people across the Caribbean.

The center of the sprawling storm's projected path targets Delaware and New Jersey, but that projection comes with huge amounts of uncertainty. The territory that could feel the brunt of 57 mph or greater winds equivalent to at least a strong tropical storm stretches from North Carolina to Massachusetts, and includes sizable chunks of battleground states North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Some, such as Virginia, have already declared states of emergency.

Beyond that, Sandy could merge with an eastward-moving winter storm and cold air flowing from Canada to form what the media is calling a "Frankenstorm," which could blanket eastern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania and western Virginia with snow.

Not even the experts are confident how this all will play out.

"Sandy is a loose, unpredictable cannon," said MIT climate researcher Kerry Emanuel, author of the 2005 book "Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes." For one thing, he noted that late October hurricanes usually affect the Caribbean, not the U.S. East Coast.

And that makes Sandy one last wildcard in a razor-thin presidential race that has already taken plenty of strange loops.

Here are some ways the storm could affect the outcome with plenty of potential down side for either President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

1) Early voting: Voting is already under way in several states in Sandy's path including North Carolina, where state election officials are preparing for the worst.

"Those counties that are already prone to flooding are already making plans for if they need to relocate resources like voting equipment," said Veronica Degraffenreid, a liaison at the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

She said board Executive Director Gary Bartlett also has emergency powers to suspend early voting in some locations if he deems it necessary. "We would take steps to ensure the safety of voters and election officials," she said.

That wouldn't be great news for Democrats, who have been pushing as many of their supporters as possible to vote early in states that allow it.

That would be doubly true in Ohio, another early-voting state and all but indispensable state for both Obama's and Romney's electoral maps.

Early voting is scheduled to start Saturday in Florida, which isn't in Sandy's direct path but is getting a lashing as the storm roars past.

Even in states like Pennsylvania, which doesn't have early voting, what happens if the damage is severe enough to disrupt Election Day itself or at least dissuade a sizable number of voters from going to the polls? Pennsylvania may not be on the Coast but it harbors some grim tropical memories: Its interior suffered widespread flooding from Hurricane Agnes in 1972, leaving more than 200,000 people homeless.

Upside for Obama: Many of the states in Sandy's path such as Maryland, New Jersey and New York are solidly in the blue column.

Also, officials in at least one of the vulnerable states have been through this kind of drill before: The elections office in St. Lucie County, Fla., was flooded by Tropical Storm Fay just a week before its August primaries in 2008, but the election went off without a hitch.

2) The Katrina factor: Any disaster offers a chance for a president to step up and come to the aid of the public, or stumble and be regarded as a goat. In this case, Obama will have little time to recover if he fails to respond properly to Sandy or if Republicans successfully plant the meme that he failed.

The classic example of what not to do, of course, is George W. Bush's lagging response to 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which forever shadowed the rest of his presidency and helped Democrats take back Congress a year later.

But Bush also provided a classic counter-example in 2004 with an aggressive, high-profile response to a six-week spree of four devastating hurricanes in Florida, where his brother Jeb was governor.

President Bush flew to the Sunshine State four times during the crisis, personally handing out ice to residents left without power, while the federal government promptly came in with aid. Some people blamed Bush's humanitarian efforts for distracting him from preparation for his first debate against John Kerry, but he handily won the state anyway.

3) The distraction: As with Hurricane Irene last year, Sandy is threatening the media epicenters of New York and Washington, guaranteeing that the networks will be in All Storm All the Time mode just as Obama and Romney are trying to make their final pitches to voters.

That leaves a lot less time for talking heads to parse the details of Obama's jobs plans, Romney's efforts to distance himself from other Republicans' rape comments, Friday's report on economic growth or whether it was right for the president to call his opponent a "buller."

This could mostly hurt Obama, who still trails in many national tracking polls and has been trying to recapture the momentum. Or it could keep Romney from closing the deal in states where he's still behind, like Ohio.

The Obama campaign, at least, was not sounding worried Friday morning.

"The campaign is closely monitoring the storm and will take all necessary precautions to make sure our staff and volunteers are safe," spokesman Adam Fetcher said. "Our historic grass-roots organization continues to run at full speed in Eastern battleground states to persuade undecided voters and get our supporters out to the polls between now and Election Day."

Darren Goode contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the year Hurricane Agnes hit. It was 1972.

Bob King is a reporter for{} POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.