Hurricane Sandy as the October election surprise

As Hurricane Sandy heads toward land on the East Coast, the storm and its aftermath could lend an interesting twist to the upcoming general election–call it the “October surprise”–as some power outages could last into Election Day.

Hurricane Sandy’s track is projected to directly affect two swing states in the election—Pennsylvania and Virginia—with Ohio also in the storm’s path inward.

The storm will arrive about a week before Election Day, and widespread, long-term power outages are a possibility, based on recent trends and the severity of the storm.

With President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on center stage next week, the storm’s aftermath could affect voting logistics, travel, and even the volume of campaign TV advertising.

The concept of the October surprise in presidential elections dates back to the 1968 campaign, when President Lyndon Johnson stopped bombing in the Vietnam War as a way to help Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey.

Ronald Reagan also worried about a late surprise in the 1980 election, when there were rumors that President Jimmy Carter was working to free hostages in Iran just days before the election.

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However, a major weather event as the October surprise just a week before the contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney would be unique, and it shouldn’t be discounted.

Hurricane Sandy is now off the Atlantic Coast and heading up from Florida toward the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. Meteorologists say over the weekend, Sandy will meet up with another storm and then make a sharp-left turn into a coastal region starting on Monday.

The center of the storm’s projected path is southern New Jersey, but its eye could make landfall in an area between Virginia and Connecticut.

The storm is so wide that it will likely bring severe conditions to an area inhabited by 66 million people, including parts of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, New York, and Connecticut.

These regions will see heavy rains and high winds, and areas in the northwest track of the storm may see snow. It all adds up to a recipe for massive power outages, storm damage, and flooding.

On his blog, AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions vice president Michael Smith says widespread power outages are very likely possible.

“Because of the geographic extent (winds capable of causing power failures in a swath hundreds of miles in width), there could be massive power failures and, once out, the power may be out for weeks,” Smith.

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene left millions of utility customers without power at some point. Half of those power outages were in Virginia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

The Department of Energy says the peak number of power outages during Hurricane Irene was about 5.9 million on the night of August 28, with about 3 million outages in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Five days later, about 580,000 people were still without power.

So in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy won’t make an exit until November 1, leaving power crews about five or six days to get people back on the grid, including polling places, public buildings and residences.

Two states that depend heavily on electronic voting are Pennsylvania and Virginia. They also don’t have early voting.

Ohio will also be affected by Hurricane Sandy and some meteorologists are forecasting snow for parts of eastern Ohio.

On Thursday, the Christian Science Monitor reported there were already concerns about the electronic voting systems in Virginia and Pennsylvania before Hurricane Sandy became an issue.

“In four key battleground states–Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado–glitches in e-voting machines could produce incorrect or incomplete tallies that would be difficult to detect and all but impossible to correct because the machines have no paper record for officials to go back and check,” the Monitor said in its exclusive report.

The newspaper said in Pennsylvania, 50 of 68 counties use paperless voting systems, while in Virginia, 127 of 135 counties use paperless systems. And those electronic systems need electricity to operate.

In addition to potential voting machine problems, the fallout from storm damage and prolonged power outages could keep some people from the polls.

And in an ironic twist, television stations that broadcast to the Virginia market and even in Ohio might have a much greater chance to run more political advertisements on TV.

Local TV stations usually switch wall-to-wall storm coverage during big weather events, often pre-empting national TV programming. That would give stations more ad spots to run for candidates, in a more-high profile position—and at a much-higher cost.

The major impact of the storm will also give President Obama and Mitt Romney chances to act presidential in public.

There’s always a chance that Hurricane Sandy could be a dud, but that seems highly unlikely. The two major weather models used by forecasters agree the Sandy will make that left turn and run into the East Coast at some point.

Official forecasters also say there is a 90 percent chance that Hurricane Sandy will hit the East Coast.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.