Did the Bush Administration Buy Votes with FEMA Aid?

by John Sides on March 30, 2008 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Political science


President George W. Bush receives a briefing on hurricane damage from FEMA Director Mike Brown in Punta Gorda, Florida, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2004 (source ).

In the aftermath of the summer 2004 Florida hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed $1.2 billion in disaster aid to Florida residents. This research presents two empirical findings that collectively suggest the Bush administration engaged in vote buying behavior. First, by tracking the geographic location of each aid recipient, the data reveal that FEMA treated applicants from Republican neighborhoods much more favorably than those from Democratic or moderate neighborhoods, even conditioning on hurricane severity, home value, and demographic factors. Second, I compare precinct-level vote counts from the post-hurricane (November 2004) and pre-hurricane (November 2002) elections to measure the effect of FEMA aid on Bush’s vote share. Using a two-stage least squares estimator, this analysis reveals that core Republican voters are easily swayed by FEMA aid – $16,800 buys one additional vote for Bush – while Democrats and moderates are not. Collectively, these results suggest the Bush administration maximized its 2004 vote share by concentrating FEMA disaster aid among core Republicans.

The paper is by Jowei Chen, a Ph.D. candidate in Stanford’s Department of Political Science. Chen has amassed some fascinating data, and the use of hurricane strength as an instrument in the two-stage least squares model is quite plausible. Ultimately, the Bush administration’s strategy is constitutes evidence for some political science theories (e.g., here) that emphasize the strategic value of mobilizing core supporters.

Two notes in response to anticipated questions:

1) This is not illegal. Chen writes:

FEMA enjoys wide statutory discretion in distributing disaster aid among applicants within each hurricane-affected county, once that county has received a disaster declaration. There are few formulaic rules, and the statutory language that authorizes the disaster aid program is sufficiently broad to afford FEMA significant latitude in distributing its money. Hence, there is nothing unlawful about the Bush administration’s apparent vote buying strategy documented in the data.

2) Vote-buying did not win Florida for Bush in 2004. Chen writes:

…there is no possibility that the pro-Republican bias in Florida FEMA aid altered the outcome of the election.

Of course, the story is provocative nonetheless. The paper is here. Highly recommended.


gilroy0 March 31, 2008 at 2:01 am

I just did a quick scan to look for the pretty figures (bad habit), so maybe I’m missing something, or maybe I’m stupid. But…

  • (a) Why are the graphs on figure 1 on different scales? The choice of a smaller range for the Republican precincts definitely exaggerates the slope of the trend line there.
  • (b) I might be old fashioned, but I was always taught that you cannot take the log of a dimensioned quantity, like (say) FEMA aid per person. What in the world is measured by log($/person)? Does life change if I measure in log(mega $/person)? How about log(florin/person)?
  • (c) Even if the log makes sense, how can you justify just arbitrarily adding “1″ to the fraction? It seriously flattens the curve at the low end — admittedly, that’s the point but it hardly seems like a valid figure of merit anymore.

It’s 2 AM and I haven’t even attempted to work out in my head which way these choices move the apparent conclusion of the paper but they strike me as inexplicable.

Stephen Rossiter March 31, 2008 at 2:28 am

Wow, I would say its time for a change in the White House.

Also, how does the author konw this *did not* affect the outcome of the election? That is purely a counter-factual to guess what might have happened if the hurricane season had not occurred.

Jeff March 31, 2008 at 1:17 pm

If true, these results would not surprise me at all. What would surprise me is if this type of behavior is limited to the Bush administration. Anyone know if there is data to extend this study back in time?

Marshall March 31, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Can you say Congressional hearing?

I hope so.

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