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The political fallout of natural disasters

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Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Hopkins looks at the political fallout of natural disasters. For past posts in the series, head here.

Last Monday, a powerful tornado in Moore, Okla., killed approximately two dozen people and devastated a tract of land some 17 miles long.

Politicians of all stripes react quickly to disasters, overseeing government responses and consoling the bereaved. And they often become known for those responses, from New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s (R) response to a 1969 blizzard to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) actions after Hurricane Sandy. Disaster response is one of the government functions that remains relatively uncontroversial, even in this polarized age.

So when tornadoes or others natural disasters strike, how do voters react, and what do those reactions tell us about voting? It’s plausible that voters might blame incumbents, even for something that is as obviously beyond their control as a tornado. There is, after all, evidence that voters punish incumbents for everything from shark attacks to losses by local sports teams. But on disasters specifically, the most recent evidence suggests more than just knee-jerk blame for whoever happens to be in office. Multiple studies indicate that when incumbents act in voters’ interests in the wake of a disaster, they are rewarded with increased support. After disasters, people rise to the occasion, and so do voters.

Research by Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra looks at the impact of tornadoes. Looking at presidential elections between 1952 and 2004, they find that county-level tornado damage leads to a decline in the incumbent party’s presidential vote share. That sounds like blind retrospection, with voters blaming whoever happens to be in office when disaster strikes.

But Healy and Malhotra also find no relationship between tornado deaths and incumbent performance. As they write, “[t]hat voters appear to respond to the component of tornado impact where government response would be more ameliorative, as opposed to reflexively voting against the incumbent whenever any adverse event occurs, suggests that voter responses to random events may reflect greater rationality than would appear to be the case at first glance.” And looking at the period from 1968 to 2004, they report that when a presidential disaster declaration is issued, the negative effect of a tornado disappears. It’s not just about what happens, but how incumbents respond.

That claim is bolstered by political scientists John Gasper and Andrew Reeves, who add governors to the picture and consider damage from various weather-related disasters. They, too, find that governors and presidents are punished for the extent of the local damage. But they also show that such effects are typically outweighed by voters’ positive response to efforts on their behalf. In the affected counties, governors are rewarded for seeking presidential disaster declarations and presidents are awarded for granting them. For governors, the bonus is substantial, at about four percentage points.

Presidents who turn down disaster requests, by contrast, are punished to the tune of approximately one percentage point. Keep in mind that many of these disasters are on a much smaller scale than last week’s tornado in Oklahoma or Hurricane Sandy, making these effects all the more impressive. It’s little wonder that President Obama is slated to be in Oklahoma on Sunday, or that the legacy of many presidents, governors and mayors seems defined by their responses to disaster. Disasters provide a moment in the spotlight, when voters can see with unusual clarity who is acting on their behalf.

So as voters, are we absolved of the charge of responding irrationally to natural disasters? The evidence suggests that the answer is “yes,” at least if the question is about disaster responses. But natural disasters aren’t just about responding —they are also about planning and preparation. And there, the evidence is less sanguine about our capacity as voters to reward politicians for acting in our interests.

In another article, Healy and Malhotra examine whether voters reward spending on disaster preparedness alongside spending on disaster relief. As it turns out, we don’t. We reward spending to respond to disasters by backing incumbents more strongly, but we shrug when it comes to spending to get us ready for a disaster down the road. They also estimate that a dollar spent on disaster preparedness reduces subsequent damage by $15, making such investments highly cost-effective.

Natural disasters capture America’s attention, and understandably so. As voters, we pay attention in the wake of disasters, and we reward or punish incumbents based on their actions. But when the cameras are elsewhere, we’re not nearly as good about rewarding the incumbents who are getting ready for the next disaster.