With Hurricane Matthew set to slam into southern Florida on Thursday, the top priority for Florida residents — who are predicted to take the worst hit from the Category Four hurricane — is protecting their own lives and property. But with the massive storm hitting just 32 days before the 2016 presidential election, the storm could have a significant impact on United State politics as well.
And if indeed the Hurricane wreaks the damage expected, that impact appears likely to benefit Republican candidate Donald Trump.
In the 2012 election, Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama barely held off Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the state of Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, winning the state with 50 percent of the vote to 49.1 for Romney. The map below shows how the state voted by county, with the blue regions voting Democratic and red going for the Republican.
Now, here is a recent map from the National Hurricane Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing where Hurricane Matthew is predicted to hit the hardest and potentially cause the most severe damage as it makes landfall Thursday. The map is time-stamped 11 a.m. Eastern Time on October 6.
Based on a correlation of the weather and voting data, Hurricane Matthew appears headed to cause its worst damage to Florida’s most heavily Democratic areas — which are also among the state’s most densely populated regions.
“The aftermath of a Hurricane like this leaves many people displaced. For those who remain in their homes or return quickly there are days or weeks without electricity. Of course, homes get destroyed, infrastructure gets destroyed,” wrote Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall on Thursday. “It’s not hard to imagine an event so close to an election could have a significant impact on turnout in the most affected areas. Even in areas where infrastructure and voting places are up and running, putting your life back together has distract some people from voting.”
The latest polls in Florida show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a narrow edge in the state. Three polls released in the last week of September put her ahead of Trump by two, three and four percentage points, and in the weighted average of all Florida polls compiled by the election-projecting site FiveThirtyEight.com Clinton leads Trump by 2.6 points, 47.9 to 45.3.
The Pollster.com polling average sees a similar, though slightly tighter race, with Clinton holding a 2.1 point edge, 44.7 to 42.6, in Florida.
But most polls assume that voters will actually show up at the polls in numbers more or less commensurate with recent past elections. A large bloc of Democratic voters hit hard by Hurricane Matthew and, as a consequence, failing to vote, could easily erase Clinton’s narrow margin of victory — throwing the state to Trump.
What happens if Florida’s 29 electoral votes end up on Trump’s ledger rather than Clinton’s? The result may not directly lead to a Trump victory in November, but clearly his chances would rise significantly.
According to the site ElectionGraphs.com, which keeps tabs on the state of the Electoral College race based on recent state-by-state polling, Trump’s “expected” electoral vote total now stands at 225, which is 45 short of the 270 needed to win the presidency. To hit that total Trump must win all states in which he now holds polling leads, that is, all of the states that appear in shades of red on the following map.
That total does not include Florida, which is in Clinton’s column. But if Hurricane Matthew swings the state back to Trump, the additional 29 votes give him 254, only 16 shy of 270. If he could find a way to overcome what per Pollster.com is currently a 5.7 point deficit in Michigan, that state’s 16 electoral votes would give him 270 and the White House.
Alternatively, Trump is now nearly tied with Clinton, according to polling projections, in Nevada and Iowa, which have six votes apiece. Winning those two states, plus Florida, would leave Trump just four votes short.
But the state of New Hampshire has — four votes. Trump trails there by 4.8 points in the Pollster.com average. Trump would need to do some significant work in the Granite State, but if he can pull it off, a combination of Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire would turn the election Trump’s way if Hurricane Matthew devastates the Democratic turnout in south Florida.
There is one factor, however, that could prevent a major change in voting patterns even if Hurricane Matthew does indeed inflict major damage on south Florida — many voters there may have already cast their ballots.
“The nice thing about our state is you have a lot of opportunities to vote,” Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott said on Wednesday. “You can vote by mail, you can vote early and then you still have the opportunity to vote on Election Day. It’s not like we have just one day in our state.”
At least 2.5 million vote-by-mail ballots have already gone out in Florida.