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Inside Politics

Hurricanes complicate election projections

'With everything that's happened, everything else is secondary'

By Greg Botelho
CNN

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WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- First, Hurricane Frances barreled through Sean McDonough's Vero Beach, Florida, home, leaving eight inches of standing water. The knockout blow came three weeks later, in the form of Hurricane Jeanne.

Within 24 hours, one wall collapsed, the ceiling had caved in and an 18-inch-deep flood ruined almost everything that McDonough owned, sparing only his laptop computer and 101-year-old brass bed.

"Right now, it's hard to focus on anything else," McDonough said.

But the devastation has not lessened McDonough's desire to vote. Even as he looks for a new home and new job, he said he's looking forward to November 2. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the debates)

Political experts say a major event like the hurricanes will likely affect all aspects of people's lives, including their political inclinations. But with few comparable precedents, they're unsure about the ultimate effect on the presidential race in Florida.

Four hurricanes in six weeks have upended millions of lives, causing billions of dollars worth of damage that could take months, if not years to repair.

"All I hear about is the hurricanes," said Katherine Madigan of West Palm Beach. "With everything that's happened, everything else is secondary. People are just bogged down."

While the presidential race likely remains far from many minds in Florida, that does not diminish the state's electoral importance -- especially after a tight election and voting issues focused attention so intently on the state in 2000.

With 27 electoral votes, fourth largest of any state, Florida could again play a major role come November 2.

"The hurricanes are almost certainly going to affect the election," said University of Florida political sciences professor Stephen Craig. "We just don't know how."

Political dilemma

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday night shows President Bush leading Sen. John Kerry by 5 percentage points among registered Florida voters, 9 points among likely voters. This comes after weeks of spotty polling, in which wide-scale power outages and destruction made it difficult to find a truly random opinion sample.

Those numbers come not only with many Floridians preoccupied by the hurricanes, but as both major political parties admit the weather has significantly hampered their efforts.

"You don't want to campaign in areas that have been hit by a natural disaster," said Scott Maddox, chair of the Florida Democratic Party. "There's no place in Florida that has been unaffected."

"You're dealing with the different extremes -- did our people make it? Is the headquarters still standing? Is it appropriate to begin campaigning?" adds Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a senior advisor to Florida's Republican Party. "It's just a judgment call that each campaign has to make."

Storms forced Democrats to cancel recent legs of its "Donkey Rock" tour, a concert/voter registration drive, to Pensacola and Orlando, noted Maddox.

Besides one visit last week, Kerry has also largely stayed away from the state. Florida State University political sciences professor Lance Dehaven-Smith speculates that "if he came in and expressed sympathy, it would be viewed as insincere and a play for votes."

Bush has visited the Sunshine State four times in recent weeks -- in most cases to survey damage and promise aid, asking Congress on Monday for $7.1 billion to aid the recovery throughout the Southeast.

Dehaven-Smith says this could backfire on Bush, because "he has raised expectations that are not likely to be met."

"By the time the elections come, people will probably be very disappointed in terms of getting things back to normal," he said. "Doesn't he realize these people will be suffering for months and months? ... He could end up getting blamed for that."

Fletcher rebuts this theory, calling the president's efforts needed and appreciated.

"People understand that it's a government bureaucracy, and that the money will be there as soon as it can," she said. "The most important part is to get the process started."

GOP strongholds hit hard

Bursts of heavy rain continued to make life difficult Wednesday, as local radio broadcasts tragic stories and pleas for help to salvage homes, businesses and lives. Such issues could mean relatively few Floridians will be among those watching Thursday night's debate at the University of Miami, said Craig.

"By and large, people are not paying a lot of attention to the presidential race," said Craig. "There's not a lot of motivation to watch if your home has been damaged and your life has been turned upside down. ... And it's hard to watch TV if you don't have power."

The hurricanes hit particularly hard in traditional GOP strongholds such as Punta Gorda, Vero Beach and Pensacola.

"If the turnout is lower in those areas, then that's bad for President Bush," said Dehaven-Smith, noting that Dade and Broward counties -- the latter a Democratic bastion -- have been relatively spared.

Clean-up efforts continue throughout Florida, with electricity, food and insurance claims monopolizing many people's thoughts, money and time for the unforeseeable future.

"It could get resolved in a couple of weeks or -- if it's anything like Hurricane Andrew -- it could take years," said Sarah Leroy, a Red Cross employee and West Palm Beach resident. "You're not going to think about much else for a while."

"With the hurricanes, there is a sense of gloom and almost fatality -- there's not a lot of optimism," adds Dehaven-Smith. "But I don't know how that plays out politically."

More work still to do

Election officials, meanwhile, are scrambling to make up for lost time and address issues caused by hurricane damage.

Theresa LePore, supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County, said storms have made several polling places untenable and her office, "inundated with voter registration forms, [is] technically two weeks behind" because of power outages and missed days.

"But we are working seven days a week, and if we have to stay up all night, we will," she said. "We'll be ready. Palm Beach County has been dealt blows before."

Across the political spectrum, a great deal of work still needs to be done in Florida, be it finding and processing new voters, educating the public on election details or campaigning for a favorite candidate or cause.

"Hopefully, Jeanne will be the last hurricane for a while," said Maddox. "It's quite a balancing act, but we're just a handful of days from the election."

Whatever efforts made by election officials or the political parties, the brunt of the burden -- and the outcome of the election -- rests on the voters. The posthurricane malaise may not lift for several more weeks, but ultimately voters have the power to decide whether Bush or Kerry captures this important battleground state.

"There are an awful lot of Floridians right now who are not engaged," said Craig. "But if we get a respite, that may change. We need a little time to catch our breath and start figuring out what tomorrow will bring."


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