Before Hurricane Sandy hit, the presidential race was in a statistical dead heat. Obama and Romney were tied with the popular vote, but Obama held a lead in the electoral college. The possibility of another election like 2000, 1888 and 1876 threatened to happen again — a candidate might win the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. That possibility just got a boost with Sandy hitting the East Coast.
While the storm will be long gone by Election Day, its impact is going to felt much longer. The subways of New York City and railways of New Jersey face a long cleanup. People who have their homes, roads and neighborhoods damaged may be less inclined to vote on Tuesday because they have more immediate needs in getting their lives together.
By chance, the states hit by Sandy are either safe Obama states or swing states. The only state in Sandy’s path that is a solid Romney state is West Virginia. In the cases, of New York and Pennsylvania, the hardest hit parts are on the coast, Obama’s strongest areas.
It isn’t all bad for Obama voters. Obama voters tend to live in urban areas; Romney’s more in rural areas. Urban areas will get the power back first and experience the first cleanups. Rural areas will suffer longer.
There are two ways to look at how Sandy will impact the presidential election. The first is the electoral vote. Areas of Ohio that were hit include some of the Obama strongholds. The same is true in Pennsylvania, where Obama is strongest along the coastline. The same argument can be made for Virginia. North Carolina was hit as well, but the impact and voting breakdowns there are less likely to affect Obama voters disproportionately. North Carolina was trending Romney before the storm anyway.
It is not unthinkable that turnout could decline by 5-10% in the hurricane-hit states. If Obama strongholds are hit disproportionately, then Obama could suffer as much as a 2-3% drop in the vote. A drop of Obama support of this amount could swing Virginia. It could also turn Ohio and Pennsylvania into statistical dead heats.
If Romney takes those states while Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and Nevada are still tossups, Romney would lead 257 to 227 with 54 electoral votes as tossups. New Hampshire’s vote probably won’t be influenced by Sandy, and it is leaning to Obama. Nevada looks headed for Obama too, but those two states only improve Obama’s chances to 237. Florida is then a must-win for Obama, but that would only give him 266 electoral votes. He still must win either Colorado or Iowa.
That is a worst-case scenario for Obama. Sandy probably is not going to have the impact that it will throw Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio to Romney. If Obama takes just one of these states, especially Ohio or Pennsylvania, he is still within victory by taking Florida.
Yes, the election could rest on Florida again. There is little comfort in that.
More likely is that Obama will hold onto Pennsylvania and Ohio where he has leads. He may even take Virginia. New Hampshire is probably for Obama as is Nevada. Romney might be able to sweep Florida, Colorado and Iowa along with North Carolina. That still translates into a 288-250 electoral college victory for Obama. Yet this electoral victory might happen with Romney receiving more popular votes than Obama.
Let’s assume though that voter turnout is down in the Sandy-hit states. Romney and Obama lose votes. Perhaps Obama loses a few more, but even if it is equal proportionately, just a 5-10% drop in voter turnout could tip the popular vote towards Romney because few voters mean a smaller majority for Obama in these states.
Here is a look at how important the states hit by Sandy were for the Obama vote totals in 2008. The numbers next to the state are the the margin of victory for Obama that year.
- Virginia: 235,000
- Ohio: 262,000
- Pennsylvania: 621,000
- District of Columbia: 228,000
- New York: 2,052,000
- Maryland: 670,000
- Delaware: 103,000
- New Jersey: 602,000
- Massachusetts: 796,000
- Connecticut: 368,000
- Rhode Island: 131,000
- New Hampshire: 68,000
- Maine: 126,000
These 13 states lead to an Obama margin of 6,262,000 votes, approximately. In today’s electoral vote count, they equal 143 or over half of the 270 needed to win. Obama’s 2008 margin of victory nationally was 9,549,000. His vote total will undoubtedly be lower in 2012 than 2008, as will his margin of victory, but these states will still represent the bulk of Obama’s popular vote.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that instead of a 6 million-plus margin of victory, Obama may only win these states by 4 million. A lower vote turnout could drop another few hundred thousand, perhaps as much as 500,000 from Obama’s victory margin.
The only state hit by Sandy that was a certain Romney state was West Virginia. Yet McCain only won that state by 94,000. It is insignificant compared to the other states.
Romney will run up huge margins of victory through much of the South, Appalachia, Great Plains and some of the West. He will build on McCain’s already comfortable vote percentages of 60% or more. The other Obama states from Minnesota to Washington to California will have lower Obama vote totals too. Taken together, the rest of the 2008 Obama states and McCain states tipped to Obama by three million. It’s very likely that Romney will have a plurality outside of the East Coast this year.
The 2008 totals are only important for highlighting how important the mid-Atlantic to New England states are for Obama. Right now, the polls show a dead heat at around 49%. The 9-million-vote lead in 2008 happened with Obama getting 52.9% to McCain’s 45.6%. That 9-million-vote cushion doesn’t exist this time.
Take away another half-a-million Obama votes on the East Coast and that translates to slightly less than half a percentage point in Obama’s national vote total. It might not cost him the election, but he might make the annals of history with George W. Bush, Benjamin Harrison and Rutherford Hayes. All became president even though more Americans preferred another candidate in the popular vote. What makes Obama unique is that he would be the first president ever reelected despite losing the popular vote.
If Obama thinks the Republican Party was being obstructionist to him in his first term, he probably can’t even imagine how the next four years could be when they consider him an illegitimate president.