Hurricane Irene: More Bad News for Obama (and House Republicans??)

by Joshua Tucker on August 27, 2011 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections

In honor of Hurricane Irene, I thought I would post a link to the classic Bartels and Achen work on voter responses to acts of God before the power goes out. Bottom line: voters are willing to blame incumbents for just about anything, including things beyond the control of government like the weather. Here’s the abstract of Juan March Foundation Working Paper Series version of the paper:

Students of democratic politics have long believed that voters punish incumbents for hard times. Governments bear the responsibility for the economy in the modern era, so that replacing incompetent managers with capable alternatives appears to be a well-informed, rational act. However, this vision of a sophisticated retrospective electorate does not bear close examination. 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. Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. Neither conventional understandings of democratic responsiveness nor rational choice interpretations of retrospective voting survive under this interpretation of voting behavior.

The full paper is available here.

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Photo Credit: Joshua A. Tucker

{ 5 comments }

Chris August 27, 2011 at 8:15 pm

This isn’t necessarily irrational behavior — remember Vito Corleone’s threat to defend his son in Godfather I:

“I’m a superstitious man, and if some unlucky accident should befall him, if he should get shot in the head by a police officer, or if he should hang himself in his jail cell, or if he’s struck by a bolt of lightning, then I’m going to blame some of the people in this room.”

Jonathan Ladd August 27, 2011 at 11:29 pm

If they are looking for other natural disaster-related research, readers might also want to check out Dan Hopkins’ paper on the effects of post- Katrina migration: http://people.iq.harvard.edu/~dhopkins/katpap89.pdf

kerokan August 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I disagree. This disaster could be a gift to Obama from the heavens. There is an APSR article about how voters judge a government’s pre- vs post-natural disaster response that says (as I remember) voters care only about post-disaster relief. Obama can increase his popularity by responding quickly and generously. And what are the Republican congressmen going to do? Not allow him to spend money on disaster relief for US citizens??

Seth August 29, 2011 at 12:38 am

I tend to think the 2012 hurricane season will weigh far more heavily on next year’s election than this one will.

reflectionephemeral August 29, 2011 at 11:38 am

I guess Obama better hope that Luke Fickell figures things out quickly at Ohio State:

The new study looked at elections for president, governor and senate between 1964 and 2008 and compared them to football results for 62 major college teams. The researchers found that wins in the two weeks before an election boosted the vote share of incumbents in the county where a school is located by 1.05 to 1.47 percentage points — enough to make a difference in a close race.

And for teams they termed “powerhouses” the impact was even greater, giving the incumbents between 2.30 and 2.42 percentage points more than in years when the local team lost.

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