Even though politicians don’t control the weather, voters punish them for the damage it causes. But analyzing all county-level election results for incumbent governors and presidents from 1970 to 2006 also shows that this punishment is dwarfed by the reward for taking action.
In my study with Professor John Gasper of Carnegie Mellon at Doha, published last year in the American Journal of Political Science, we examined countywide damage caused by natural disasters in the three months preceding elections. When a governor requested aid and a president approved it, presidents received a half-point increase in their county vote share while governors saw a four-point bump.
Hurricane Sandy was unprecedented because it was so destructive and occurred so close to Election Day, which makes its political impact difficult to predict. The impact on state and local elections may take time to discern, but it is clear that Sandy put the brakes on a Romney campaign that had been gaining momentum and thrust President Obama into a leadership role. Actions the president took and images he created will help determine how voter emotions about Sandy are expressed in the voting booth on Tuesday.
Why are politicians rewarded for natural disasters? Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and other calamities are pop quizzes in leadership. While voters switch channels to avoid the millions of dollars’ worth of political ads late in a campaign, in a crisis they tune in for information from mayors, governors and presidents. They seek guidance, assurance that help is on the way and comforting empathy.
Sometimes, they find a proverbial knight in shining armor. When Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans in 1965, the city’s mayor in a U.S. Army “duck boat” rescued at least one citizen stranded on her roof. But leaders sometimes fail the test, as in 1979 when Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic so badly handled a snowstorm that he lost the Democratic primary to Jane Byrne’s insurgent campaign. And recall that President George W. Bush, in his final press conference, was still addressing questions about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.