WASHINGTON (AP) — It appears the only thing that can knock this presidential campaign off television is a monster hurricane.
The candidates, their aides, their surrogates, even some of their ads, went quiet Friday, as swing-state Florida was pounded by Hurricane Matthew, coastal residents hunkered down in their homes and the 15-months of constant political chatter almost disappeared.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton kept far away from the storm at their home bases in New York. Both planned to use most of the day to prepare for their second debate on Sunday night, a town-hall-style forum in St. Louis.
The pause was a reminder of the possibilities and perils of campaigning during a crisis. Plenty of presidents and presidential hopefuls before them have used similar natural disasters to showcase their leadership — or their shortcomings — in ways that can change the trajectory of the race. Both Clinton and Trump appeared to be moving carefully, for now.
The campaigns spent Thursday moving staff and volunteers, closing offices and canceling events in the path of the storm, as many Floridians heeded calls to evacuate. In Florida, the Clinton campaign pulled its ads from the Weather Channel, amid criticism about insensitivity, and the Trump team pulled its negative TV ads.
“Even if you want to do politics, no one is there to listen,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who directed or advised Barack Obama’s campaigns in the state in 2008 and 2012.
Both the campaigns and state officials were watching closely how the storm might impact Floridian votes. The storm arrived five days before the voter registration deadline, prompting the Clinton campaign to ask state officials for an extension. Republican Gov. Rick Scott refused, saying “everyone has had a lot of time to register.”
Officials were also eyeing the vote-by-mail operation. Vote-by-mail ballots were due to be sent this week, leaving the potential for ballots to arrive just as voters evacuate their homes. At least half of Florida voters typically cast ballots early, either by mail or in person.
Officials said they hope that any disruption to voting would be less severe than with Superstorm Sandy, which struck New Jersey and New York just before the 2012 presidential election and kept many voters away from polls.
Sandy’s greater political impact, however, may have been the way President Barack Obama used the moment to his advantage. Obama quickly surveyed the aftermath, receiving a warm welcome from Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and promised millions in aid.
Trump, who is trying to recapture momentum lost in a rocky first debate, practiced his skills in public Thursday night at a town hall in Sandown, New Hampshire. Although his aides called the event a dry run for Sunday, Trump dismissed the notion.
“I said, ‘Forget debate prep.’ I mean, give me a break,” said Trump, who mocked Clinton for spending days preparing. “She’s resting. She wants to build up her energy for Sunday night. And you know what? That’s fine. But the narrative is so foolish.”