In a race as closely contested as the 2012 U.S. presidential election, in which the latest opinion polls place President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney at an even 47 per cent among likely voters, every single point scored and misstep made counts.

However, less than a week before Election Day, the U.S. citizenry is so sharply polarised that, barring the 13 per cent or so of truly undecided voters, even the most dramatic of situations is likely to make little difference.

As political analyst Robert Shrum recently noted, “Never underestimate the capacity of an intervening event to have a big influence. It was the Friday before the 2004 election that Osama bin Laden suddenly popped up on Al Jazeera, telling people they shouldn’t vote for Bush. Now, I don’t think he was a dumb cookie; I think he knew exactly what he was doing. The last person in the world people in this country were going to take advice from was Osama bin Laden.”

Does this apply to “super-storm” Sandy? Perhaps.

Clear indications that Sandy would wreak havoc along the U.S. East Coast emerged more than a week ago, leaving the Obama administration with plenty of time to prepare not only to tackle the hurricane , but also set in motion its public relations machinery.

A few days before Monday night — when Sandy made landfall in New Jersey accompanied by lethal, 130 km ph wind gusts — statements from the White House started emerging.

The President himself issued warning about it being a “big”, “difficult” storm. Alongside, minute details of all his meetings with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Red Cross and the Coast Guard were made available to the media.

The Republican machinery wasted little time in hopping on board the Sandy wagon. Mr. Romney immediately announced that he’d be suspending some of his campaign activities to focus on those affected by the storm, and the campaign team committed his wife, Ann and vice-presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, to further hurricane-focused meetings.

Both men are poised to visit areas worst-hit by Sandy, which, although re-classified as a post-tropical cyclone after making landfall, has claimed more than 40 American lives and left around eight million without power.

Whether this will matter on November 6 remains an open question. Although Mr. Obama began the race with an ostensibly unassailable lead, the margin shrank dramatically after the presidential debates in October, when Mr. Romney boosted his public standing by appearing both aggressive and reasonable in his arguments and criticism of the Obama administration. A Pew Research Centre poll this week said they were tied among likely voters.

The outcome will ultimately depend on who turns up at the polling booths, whether they are given the opportunity to vote, and what issues weigh most strongly on their minds. With even major events like hurricane Sandy failing to shift voter preferences towards either candidate, the identity of the next White House occupant may only be known when the last vote is counted.

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