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Americas

Hurricane Sandy stops US election campaigning ... but the ads go on

media A box containing donations for disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims … Reuters/Eric Thayer

The hurricane-turned-superstorm Sandy has put the presidential campaign on hold just a week before election day. In the key swing state of Ohio events at which the candidates were to appear were cancelled. But political advertisements on television and radio continued to appear in between news coverage of the destruction in New York City.

President Barack Obama left the campaign trail in Florida and returned to Washington on Monday to deal with disaster management, leaving his Republican challenger Mitt Romney on the trail in Ohio on Monday.

Both Romney and Obama were due to spend time here in Ohio this week. Romney had planned three events on Tuesday. He campaigned at Avon Lake High School Monday morning but then cancelled appearances for the rest of the day.

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He did hold an event in Kettering, near Dayton, on Tuesday. The rally that was originally planned was turned it into a storm relief effort.

Romney is in a tricky position, needing to both acknowledge the destruction of the storm and keep up momentum in his campaign. Every moment he can spend in Ohio and other swing states could determine the outcome of the election.

As president, Obama has the opportunity to be in the spotlight, managing a massive disaster relieve effort, although that also means he is responsible for anything that goes wrong.

Speaking at the White House and at the Red Cross on Tuesday, he was very careful to call on all disaster relief to be provided, clearly remembering President George W Bush's much-criticised handling of the devastation on New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Of course, while the candidates themselves were on hold, their television advertising campaigns were not. In Ohio political advertisements aired in between news segments covering the storm, as if nothing had changed.

"Here in Ohio we have had political advertisements since March," says Catherine Turcer, who has been studying campaign finance in Ohio for many years.

Candidates seem convinced that targeted advertising to swing states makes a difference, she explains.

By election day nearly two billion dollars will have been spent on the presidential campaigns.

"It's astonishing to imagine this amount of money," says Turcer. The money is both direct contributions to candidates, and also money spent by outside groups, enabled by last year's Supreme Court decision to allow corporations to spend as much money as they want on election issues.

"Our courts made a decision that corporations have first amendment rights," Turcer comments. "Of course, corporations don't vote, corporations don't go to war, corporations don't do a variety of things that voters actually do."

For her the idea that corporations should be able to have free speech is "ludicrous".

Audio report - the Hurricane and the campaign 31/10/2012 - by Sarah Elzas Listen

And, she says, it makes it difficult for the candidates themselves, who are pushed to address issues that groups bring up in advertisements, that they themselves may not want to focus on.

" One of the things that is very clear is that candidates are not in control of their own campaigns. These groups put these ads out and foster the direction of campaigns. It can be very difficult for individual candidates, and it can also be difficult for parties."

Indeed, she believes that after this election, lawmakers shaken by the onslaught of campaign advertising, particularly negative ads, are going to reconsider campaign finance rules or at least demand more disclosure. But they will need outside pressure to break out of a system they have grown used to.

"We need to be pushing from the outside," Turcer says. Activists need to encourage people not to be complacent.

"It's very easy to tune out. And what we need to do is to say, we can actually ask for better, and get angry and push on this," she says. "There are groups all over the country urging voters not to forget what happened this year, but to push for something better when we get to 2014 or 2016."

In the meantime, the ads continue. And the candidates are back on the trail. Romney's wife Ann is due in Ohio Wednesday and Thursday and both Romney himself and Obama are due in the state by the end of the week.

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