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It’s Federal Disaster Relief, Stupid: Could Matthew Affect the Vote in Florida?

As storm-ravaged states dig out from disaster, a provocative new book connects pain and politics.

Hillary Clinton is in Miami today to visit a state swept by Hurricane Matthew that is already feeling climate change on a regular basis. Her trip is part of a years-long trend of political leaders devoting more and more attention to weather disasters.

"It’s the economy, stupid"probably the most often-cited political saw of the Clinton administration. Rightly or wrongly, leaders are routinely credited with or punished for economic trends they have little or no control over. Mostly punished. The idea is that voters’ sense of financial security and general well-being drives their decisions at the ballot box.

And then there's the weather. Everybody complains about it, an even older saw goes, but nobody ever does anything about it. 

Source: Princeton University Press

In their 2016 book, Democracy for Realists, two political scientists ask why people vote the way they do, and they conclude that the conventional political wisdom doesn't add up. Their profession, they argue, has focused too much on voters' issues and positions, overlooking the importance of social and group identity in voting. Voters are indeed sensitive to economic conditions, but they are heavily biased toward the period right before an election and largely blind to longer-term trends, Princeton's Christopher Achen and Vanderbilt's Larry Bartels contend. An additional challenge: People are superbly bad at discerning the effect of a party’s policies on the economy, let alone how seemingly random fluctuations can change fortunes.

As a result, the authors say, “governments are punished willy-nilly for bad times, including bad times clearly due to events beyond the government’s control.” 

As with economic hardship, natural disasters can influence voters' moods around election time. Achen and Bartels pore over case studies, teasing out evidence that random disasters helped shape elections, from shark attacks off the New Jersey coast in 1916 to the 2000 presidential election. They conclude that former Vice President Al Gore, who is appearing with Clinton on Tuesday in Miami, may have lost seven states to George W. Bush because unusual weather patterns caused voters to lash out at the incumbent party. Their analysis "implies that 2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in 2000 because their states were too dry or two wet," they write. "As it turned out, Gore could have used those votes."

The authors came to this conclusion by building their own weather index, using meteorological observations from 1897 to 2000, across 344 climate divisions in the continental U.S. That set a benchmark for normal conditions. They then analyzed popular support for incumbent parties in 26 elections. The combined voting records and meteorological index provided a way to control for variability and discern a relationship between weather and anti-incumbent voting. The effect, they found, was unambiguously negative.

Before the 2000 election, the common scientific measure of drought and flooding was running about 10 percent higher than normal. Southern and western drought and northern and eastern wetness cost Gore almost three times as many electoral votes as Florida's infamous "butterfly ballot," Achen and Bartels write.

"Voters responded to climatic distress in 2000," they write, "as they have repeatedly throughout the past century, by punishing the incumbent government at the polls."

So to the extent that climate change had any attributable, substantial role in U.S. extreme weather in 2000 (unaddressed in the book)—and to the extent that the Achen-Bartels analysis stands—climate change itself may have played a role in keeping Al Gore from the White House. 

There's evidence that political leaders have become more sensitive to natural disasters over the last generation. The number of events formally declared federal disasters has shot up since the early 1990s. The declaration enables emergency funding to flow to state capitals so communities can start to rebuild after hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, and the like.

Why the upward trend? Bigger, more populous cities and suburbs built since the 1950s make easier targets for nature's wrath. Meanwhile, extreme weather has been on the rise, with as many as half of extreme events globally showing human fingerprints in recent years.

But as much as anything, with the internet capable of turning every local disaster into a global drama, the action (or inaction) of a president can leave a strong impression. 

"Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican doesn’t actually matter," said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, executive director of the Wharton Risk Center, who has studied the FEMA data and included it in 2013 congressional testimony (PDF).  "The reality is, it’s very hard for you as an elected official these days—with massive media coverage during and then right after a disaster—not to be seen as a person who is here to help citizens in need."

Michel-Kerjan said President Barack Obama's adept response to Superstorm Sandy may have contributed to his 2012 re-election. It doesn't always break that way for the incumbent. 

The subtitle of Democracy for Realists is Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Its critical view of how democracy actually may work has caused some unease. By Election Day, Hurricane Matthew may have receded for all but those actually struggling to restore normalcy in its wake, but the notion that voters almost randomly punish leaders for circumstances beyond their control can't be a comforting one. People want to believe there's a captain steering this ship, even if none too deftly. 

"Sustained, widespread economic losses not compensated by federal disaster relief but repeatedly exploited by the opposition might reduce the Democratic vote for president next month in the affected areas," Achen said. "That's what happened in New Jersey in 1916," when shark attacks killed several people. "But so far, it does not look like anything similar is happening in Florida and South Carolina."

That's another problem. Without federal mishandling of disaster response, whatever will the opposition party blame the incumbent regime for?  

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