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Hurricane Sandy and the Presidential Election

• October 26, 2012 • 3:35 PM

What an incumbent has to gain—and lose—from a natural disaster

An October surprise is usually something ginned up by a political campaign, but this year it seems that mother nature has one up her sleeve, in the form of Hurricane Sandy. What effect might this have on the election? Here are two data points that nature’s oppo researchers might have considered.

According to a historical analysis by the political scientists Christopher H Achen and Larry M Bartels, fluke natural disasters–droughts, flu epidemics, even shark attacks–tend to damage an incumbent by association:

We find that voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks. As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties.

But another study by the political scientist Andrew Reeves finds that electorates are more responsive to an incumbent’s handling of a disaster than to the disaster itself:

In a county-level analysis of gubernatorial and presidential elections from 1970 to 2006, we examine the effects of weather events and governmental responses. We find that electorates punish presidents and governors for severe weather damage. However, we find that these effects are dwarfed by the response of attentive electorates to the actions of their officials. When the president rejects a request by the governor for federal assistance, the president is punished and the governor is rewarded at the polls.

So it goes without saying that the federal and state response to the storm will matter a lot. As for other potential ramifications, Ed Kilgore over at the Washington Monthly points out that mass blackouts could put a major damper on those massive last-minute TV ad campaigns that both campaigns are about to roll out. Infer what you will about God’s opinion of political ad spending.

Meanwhile, as someone with many loved ones in the Washington DC area, I’m primarily concerned about the safety of my friends–and that of the reported 66+ million people in the storm’s flight path.

 

John Gravois
John Gravois is Pacific Standard's deputy editor.

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