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First Thoughts: Government's high-wire act

The government’s real high-wire act: beginning the recovery… Don’t expect a delay with next week’s election… But election precincts could be moved… Something’s happening out there: The number of named storms has increased every decade… Could the election all come down to the auto bailout?... Make no mistake: The Romney camp wouldn’t be airing that Jeep ad if it were ahead in Ohio… But the map expands to Minnesota and Pennsylvania… And Romney holds a storm-relief event in Kettering, OH, while Bill Clinton campaigns in Minnesota and Colorado.

President Obama had planned to be in Colorado and Wisconsin today, and former Gov. Mitt Romney was headed to New Hampshire, but both have cancelled all of their own public events and are instead battling it out under the radar. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** The government’s real high-wire act: Now with Sandy moving away from the East Coast, the real impact begins today -- assessing the damage, realizing what happened, and the government (federal, state, and local) beginning the recovery. And this is the true high-wire act for President Obama and his administration: making sure the recovery and relief begins immediately and as smoothly as possible. Every hiccup could get amplified; that’s the real political danger for the president. Then again, he has the bully pulpit and a job to do. Already, the late-night calls to Republican Gov. Chris Christie are public (thanks to Christie, not the president, by the way). Meanwhile, as we said yesterday, Mitt Romney, might be in the trickier spot. He has no job to do right now -- he can’t look overtly political. Romney today is doing a relief event, which means no politics. But the setting? It’s very political: Ohio.  

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A woman touches a fallen tree in Manhattan's Alphabet City neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York October 30, 2012. Millions of people across the eastern United States awoke on Tuesday to scenes of destruction wrought by monster storm Sandy, which knocked out power to huge swathes of the nation's most densely populated region, swamped New York's subway system and submerged streets in Manhattan's financial district. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

*** Don’t expect a delay in the election: Could Sandy cause a delay in the election, which is supposed to take place exactly one week from today? NBC’s Pete Williams says it’s possible -- but very unlikely. Per Williams, the Constitution gives Congress the authority to establish the day for presidential elections, and since 1845 a federal law has set the date as "the Tuesday after the first Monday in November." Congress could change the date any time it wants, just as it could change any federal statute. But it would have to act quickly. What’s more, Williams adds, it’s the states, not the federal government, that RUN elections in America.  Many states in areas not affected by Sandy's wrath would be likely to oppose a delay and its attendant costs. They could choose to go ahead with their elections for all but president and have a separate election for president later. But such a move would undoubtedly suppress the turnout. Finally, Williams says, consider that never before in U.S. history has a presidential election been postponed or canceled, not even during the Civil War. 

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Superstorm Sandy made landfall Monday evening on a destructive and deadly path across the Northeast.

*** But election precincts could be moved: That said, one of us talked with senior administration officials and learned that FEMA head Craig Fugate has informed states that the federal government would reimburse them to move polling places and import generators to conduct the election next week.  Fugate himself has experience with this in Florida. The state, in 2004, had to move polling places for a primary because of power and other storm-related issues. The most likely scenario has FEMA essentially helping the states open as many polling places as possible; you’ll also likely see various state governments decide to allow displaced folks to vote in different polling stations provisionally. And it will likely mean a potential messy counting situation. But a delay is very, very unlikely.

MSNBC's Chris Jansing talks with NBC's Pete Williams about the impact Superstorm Sandy may have on the election, and the issues that would surround a possible postponement of the presidential election.

*** Something’s happening out there: Your First Read authors don’t pretend to be meteorologists or Dr. NOAAs, but it’s hard not to look at the following data and conclude that something is indeed happening out there when it comes to the climate. Simply examine the history of named storms in the Atlantic. As many of you may know, a storm doesn’t get a name until it reaches Tropical Storm status. And the names are given each year alphabetically. For decades, getting to the back half of the alphabet was VERY rare. Now? Very common. Take a look: In the 1970s, there were just an average of under eight named storms per year; in the 1980s, the average was just under nine; in the 1990s, it was about 11; in the 2000s, it jumped again, to nearly 15 storms a year; and -- get this -- in the first three years of this decade (2010, 2011, 2012), the average is under 19. Specifically, we had 19 named storms in 2010, 18 in 2011 and, SO FAR, we’ve had 19 named storms (and there’s an entire month left in hurricane season). 

*** Car Talk: Mitt Romney loves cars. His father headed a U.S. auto company. And he even launched his 2008 presidential campaign from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI (taking the stage to Billy Ocean’s “Get out of my dreams, get into my car”). So here is the irony of this presidential election: It could all come down to Ohio (where one in eight jobs are tied to the auto industry) and Romney’s opposition to federal government’s auto bailout. As NBC’s Mike O’Brien wrote yesterday, the Romney campaign’s effort to muddy the waters on the auto bailout -- misleadingly suggesting that Jeep is outsourcing U.S. jobs to China -- is its latest tactic to play defense on the issue. The Obama camp responded with its own ad yesterday. “When the auto industry faced collapse, Mitt Romney turned his back,” the ad goes. “And now, after Romney’s false claim of Jeep outsourcing to China, Chrysler ITSELF has refuted Romney’s lie. “The truth? Jeep is ADDING jobs in Ohio.” It concludes, “Mitt Romney on Ohio jobs? Wrong then… Dishonest now.” And stumping in Youngstown, OH yesterday, Bill Clinton fired back, calling it “the biggest load of bull in the world that [Chrysler’s Jeep] would ever consider shutting down their American operations.” 

*** As GM goes, so goes Obama’s presidency -- and the election? Here is the bottom line regarding the Romney camp’s Jeep ad: It gives the impression that they’re trailing in Ohio. Otherwise, they never would have resorted to this kind of TV ad; it’s the feel of going nuclear. As we wrote in 2009, after the federal government’s takeover of GM of Chrysler, “As GM goes, so goes the Obama presidency.” But little did we know back then that Romney’s own opposition to the bailout could be the issue that possibly saves Obama in a very close election.

*** Expanding the map: Today, Bill Clinton campaigns for Obama in Minnesota, where a recent poll showed the president with just a three-point lead (although another poll had him with a larger advantage). Also, the Obama campaign announced yesterday that it would begin to advertise in Pennsylvania, given that the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future is up with a big buy there. And a new poll findsObama leading Romney by just six points in Oregon, 47%-41%. (Obama won Oregon by 16 points in ’08, but John Kerry carried it by only 4 points in ’04.)  This goes back to what we were talking about yesterday: Romney definitely has momentum outside the main battleground states; that’s why the national polls are sitting where they are. But not much has changed in the battleground states, where the advertising is going on. But it is also a reminder if that somehow there is a tipping point in this election that hits the battlegrounds, Romney has a shot at getting a much higher electoral vote figure than perhaps many folks realize. Bottom line: The chances of Romney getting 52-53% of the popular vote are much greater than Obama.

*** On the trail: Most of the campaign activity has been cancelled or delayed due to Sandy: Romney attends a storm relief event in Kettering, OH at 11:00 am ET… Bill Clinton stumps in Minnesota, hitting Minneapolis at 10:30 am ET and Duluth at 1:00 pm ET before heading to Colorado… And Ann Romney is in Iowa.

Countdown to Election Day: 7 days

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