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A Week Until Election Day, Campaigns Focus on Disaster Relief

October 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
As Hurricane Sandy blew in, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney turned their focus to storm victims rather than swing voters. Gwen Ifill talks to Politico's Jonathan Allen about the delicate balance of remaining apolitical in the aftermath of a natural disaster while running the last leg of the race to the White House.
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GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to the presidential campaign, which has taken a bit of a pause in Sandy’s aftermath.

With the election only a week away, the devastating East Coast storm forced both candidates off the stump again today. Each focused, instead, on disaster relief, with Mitt Romney in Ohio collecting canned foods and bottled water, and the president making a quick afternoon visit to Red Cross headquarters in Washington.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The most important message I have for them is that America is with you. We are standing behind you, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get back on your feet.

GWEN IFILL: Romney also spoke of the need to help storm victims.

MITT ROMNEY (R): I appreciate your generosity. It’s part of the American spirit, the American way to give to people who are in need. And your generosity this morning touches my heart.

GWEN IFILL: The Romney campaign announced he will resume campaigning tomorrow. The president will remain off the trail through Wednesday. He spent most of today at the White House offering federal support to officials in the affected areas, among them, New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a Romney supporter who nevertheless heaped praise on the president.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: I have to say, the administration, the president himself, and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far. We have a great partnership with them. And I want to thank the president personally for his personal attention to this.

GWEN IFILL: The White House announced the president will tour New Jersey’s storm damage with Christie tomorrow. Christie said today the disaster transcends politics.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: So, I don’t give a damn about Election Day. It doesn’t matter a lick to me. At the moment, I have got much bigger fish to fry than that. So do the people in the state of New Jersey. So, let the politicians who are on the ballot worry about Election Day. It’s not my problem. I’m not dealing with it at the moment.

GWEN IFILL: Both candidates sought to strike a delicate balance today, even as national and battleground state polls continue to show them locked in a dead heat. It remains unclear what effect Sandy will have on next week’s election or on the voting that has already begun in several states.

The storm forced Maryland, Washington, D.C., and some coastal areas of North Carolina to suspend early voting. But several of the regions hit hardest by power loss and property damage don’t allow early voting, including New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York.

In battleground Virginia, voters are permitted to use Sandy as an excuse to vote by mail. But the political impact may extend beyond the top of the ticket. In Connecticut, home to a tight Senate race between Republican Linda McMahon and Democratic Representative Chris Murphy, hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were still without power.

And tonight’s final Senate debate in Massachusetts was canceled after first Republican Scott Brown, then Democrat Elizabeth Warren pulled out because of the storm. But just outside the immediate zone of storm impact, voters continue to cast ballots.

As Sandy continued west and residual winds gusted to 60 miles an hour, voters were still lining up at the polls in Central Ohio.

Disasters and unanticipated surprises can turn a campaign upside-down, especially one as close as this one.

So, with seven days to go, we assess this particular October surprise with Jonathan Allen, senior Washington correspondent for Politico.

OK, Jonathan, let me name some examples for you, disasters which happened to fall into the middle of political moments, Katrina, the 2008 economic collapse, the Aurora shootings earlier this year, the Hurricane Andrew in 1992. That fell in August. How easy is it for a candidate or a politician of any stripe to mishandle that kind of situation?

JONATHAN ALLEN, Politico: I think we have seen in the past how easy it is to mishandle, and as a result we’re seeing a much better handling of it right now from President Obama and from Mitt Romney, and in general from some of the other politicians we have seen on TV and other places.

I think this is one of the few situations, unfortunately, where basic human decency and good politics dovetail. The best thing you can do as a political candidate right now is to appear to care more about what’s going on, on the ground with people who are suffering than you do about your own election.

Ideally, that’s motivated by a real feeling there, rather than simply showing it. But certainly politicians have learned the lessons from past generations who have seemed insensitive.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s fair to say a lot of thought goes into how to walk that tightrope, how to turn a campaign event into a relief event or how to take an extra day off the trail?

JONATHAN ALLEN: Absolutely. And trying to gauge just what will make you look sensitive without making you look political in looking sensitive.

I mean, there’s a lot of stagecraft that goes into politics. And this is what campaign professionals and even politicians are paid to do all the time: figure out just what it is that will translate the right message. And, by the way, that’s important for leaders too. It’s not just important in campaigning.

These guys go out as emissaries all the time to other countries, if you’re the president of the United States, for interstate deals, deals with businesses, things like that. Your ability to hit the right note with protocol is an important quality in a leader.

GWEN IFILL: So, handling of disasters is a leadership test, as much as anything else, is what you’re saying.

JONATHAN ALLEN: Absolutely.

I think candidates spend a lot of time, particularly presidential candidates obviously, trying to tell people why they should be elected, why they should have that job.

This is an opportunity to show why you should have that job, particularly for the incumbent, President Obama. He gets a chance to show it. And even Mitt Romney is able to telegraph messages about how he would lead if he were in power simply by what he does during a crisis like this.

GWEN IFILL: And yet there is a lot that is still going on behind the scenes. I assume that these guys aren’t sitting here a week out and saying, well, let’s just wait until this passes.

JONATHAN ALLEN: That’s right.

While President Obama has been off the campaign trail and Mitt Romney converted a campaign event today into a relief event, their surrogates have been out there, Ann Romney, Joe Biden, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton.

Their campaigns have continued to run advertising. We have seen solicitations for contributions not to the Obama campaign, but to the…

GWEN IFILL: The Red Cross.

JONATHAN ALLEN: … Red Cross from that massive e-mail list that Barack Obama has.

So, the campaigns are up and running. They’re still doing all the things that they normally do. There’s a little more sensitivity I think in the states that are affected by the hurricane, but they can’t really afford to pull out, to push the pause button.

GWEN IFILL: And Democrats have been saying, for instance, today that Mitt Romney during the presidential — the Republican primary debates may have said that he would actually cut back on FEMA, which is not as unpopular as it once was.

JONATHAN ALLEN: He said he wanted to move as much of that responsibility to the states and to private contributions as possible.

So, he’s getting hit for that right now. What would Mitt Romney’s FEMA look like? Would there be a Mitt Romney FEMA? Would it be as well-funded as the current organization? There’s about $7 billion in the bank right now. If Mitt Romney and Republicans were in control in Congress, there is a question as to how they would handle disaster relief.

Generally speaking, they have not wanted to spend as much money on that. And, certainly, when they do spend money on disaster relief, they want to offset it, usually meaning cut back on other services that the government provides in order to pay for it. Democrats tend to want to tax a little more for that or add to the deficit because of the emergency.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, who the president will be traveling with tomorrow looking at hurricane damage, you can only assume that that is going to be many levels of interpretation of that particular meeting.

He said he would like to reschedule Halloween. But it’s not possible to reschedule an election, is it?

JONATHAN ALLEN: It is technically possible to reschedule elections on a state-by-state basis, but I don’t think we’re going to need that. I doubt there’s going to be any need for that.

The date on which the election is held is actually set by federal law, rather than the Constitution. Congress could change that date.

There’s actually a provision for if a state doesn’t get its vote in on time basically for the state legislature to make a decision about which electors to send to vote for president. So there actually are ways for that to happen. I just don’t think anybody is at that point right now.

GWEN IFILL: But if you’re in Massachusetts or Connecticut, say, and your constituents don’t have power, they’re not watching your ads, maybe the voting machines aren’t working, Sandy could have a more direct effect.

JONATHAN ALLEN: Sandy could have a more direct effect in certain places.

I think we’re just going to have to wait for that — that week. It will have an effect certainly on their ability — on the candidates’ ability to communicate their messages in the last days. A lot of candidates will hold back money, so that they can barrage voters with ads in the last week.

Some of the candidates that have done that this time may find out that it wasn’t a good idea to husband all that money and perhaps they should have put the money out earlier. Obviously, nobody could have predicted this.

GWEN IFILL: People get their power back, and what will they see? They will see ads.

JONATHAN ALLEN: No doubt.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Jonathan, Jonathan Martin of Politico — Jonathan Allen of Politico, thank you so much.

JONATHAN ALLEN: Thanks a lot, Gwen.