Disasters don’t help politicians

There’s a popular myth that disasters help politician’s reputations because they give them a chance to be seen, to be active, and to be associated with the (complicated) emotions of recovery.

Like most misconceptions, it makes initial sense: people like politicians who DO something – who rally and organise people, who actually help make things better, and who embody the communal attitude.

While those components may be true, the fact is that disasters are almost always negative for politicians.

This blog has previously discussed research that shows disasters are moments for political revolution. In one study of US tornadoes, support for the political incumbent fell every time. Another US study showed the electorate assessed the relative roles of politicians and punished or rewarded accordingly.

In one study of political events in the year or two following almost 100 large scale natural disasters, researchers found almost complete upending of the previous political order. It didn’t establish causal links, but the proximity of disaster to the extent of the subsequent change cannot be replicated in other circumstances. We have plenty of other studies that show the dissent and disconent that emerges from disasters.

Now a study in the June/July issue of Social Science Research, has busted the myth the Obama won his second election off the back of Hurricane Sandy.

Two days after Hurricane Sandy the researchers asked almost 700 voters about their exposure to the storm and related media coverage, as well as their voting intentions.

They found that prior to the positive news coverage for Obama (Oct 31), there was no influence of Sandy on Obama’s vote share.

There was also no influence on his vote share the day after his well-publicized embrace with New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie while touring the hard-hit Jersey Shore (Nov 1).

There was a very slight improvement for Obama three days later (Nov 2 and 3).

But by the election, this trend reversed. By then news coverage of the storm had turned to focus on loss of life, slow repairs, and power cuts.

So the researchers said:

“The data suggest that people going to the polls Nov. 6 with the hurricane on their mind would have been less inclined to vote for Obama," 

They said the effect of disasters:

"depends on a number of variables and the effect may change over even shorter stretches of time.

They took the opportunity to chastise the shallowness of pundits:

Yet pundits tend to seize on certain ‘laws’ such as presiding over a disaster makes an incumbent look presidential. But each event like Sandy deserves to be studied as a unique occurrence to help answer questions about the impact of unpredictable, large-scale events as they unfold.”

While it is continuously surprising how pundits use shallow top-of-mind rules of thumb to make their assessments, there aren’t many political advisers who think so deeply either. They were advising their politicians to jump head-long into the disaster.

It’s counter-intuitive, but the evidence suggests that the stronger the politician’s alignment with a disaster, the worse it is for them.

I’d say that incumbent politicians are best to man the sandbags rather than position themselves at the top of the disaster response hierarchy.

Meanwhile Opposition politicians should be, from their position at sandbags down the road, working hard to push the recovery spotlight onto the incumbent.


Joshua Hart. Did Hurricane Sandy influence the 2012 US presidential election? Social Science Research, 2014; 46: 1 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2014.02.005



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