An Election in Hell

by Larry Bartels on July 24, 2012 · 3 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Environmental Politics

Much of the United States is in the midst of the worst drought in fifty years, and according to the National Weather Service, “it is likely to grow worse.” An Illinois crop biologist says, “It’s like farming in hell.”

Environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert notes that “the country this summer is also enduring a Presidential campaign. So far, the words ‘climate change’ have barely been uttered. . . . And so, while farmers wait for rain and this season’s corn crop withers on the stalk, the familiar disconnect continues. There’s no discussion of what could be done to avert the worst effects of climate change, even as the insanity of doing nothing becomes increasingly obvious.”

No discussion of climate policy—yet the drought may not be entirely irrelevant for the upcoming presidential election. Several years ago, Christopher Achen and I examined the impact of droughts and floods in presidential elections throughout the 20th century. We found a surprisingly strong and clear tendency for voters to punish the president’s party when their states were too wet or too dry. In the 2000 election (the most recent in our data), we estimated that Al Gore got about 2.8 million fewer votes than he would have under ideal climatic conditions.


Do voters really expect President Obama to make it rain? Probably not. But that won’t prevent them from punishing him if it doesn’t. When conditions are hellish, policy discussions are likely to be less edifying than expressions of frustration.

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