The photograph of former US President George W. Bush staring down at hurricane-ravaged New Orleans from the window of Air Force One in 2005 remains a textbook example of ill-considered political photo-ops—one Bush later called a “huge mistake” that made him look “detached and uncaring.”
But with Hurricane Sandy pounding the US east coast Monday—just eight days before the US presidential election—the now-iconic photo also underscores a peculiar finding by political scientists: When it comes to American presidential politics, weather matters.
American voters punish incumbent presidents at the polls for severe weather damage incurred on their watch, according to a study published last year by political scientists Andrew Reeves and John Gasper.
But that’s only half the story: The electoral hit those incumbents take for nasty weather is more than offset by gains at the ballot box should they declare a federal state of emergency in the affected areas, Reeves and Gasper write.
“While voters do hold presidents and governors accountable for a natural disaster, what they really hold them accountable for is the response to that event,” Reeves said in a telephone interview Monday.
President Barack Obama on Sunday declared a state of emergency in several states along the US Eastern Seaboard, as well as in Washington, DC—a move that comes as no surprise given the severity of the hurricane.
Both he and Republican challenger Mitt Romney canceled campaign events scheduled for Monday and Tuesday amid the hurricane, whose path runs though several tightly contested election swing states, including North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
In their research, Reeves and Gasper studied county-level election data of gubernatorial and presidential elections from 1970 to 2006. They found that both a governor and the president are ultimately rewarded at the polls if the governor requests federal disaster assistance and the president grants it.
The governor, however, is still rewarded at the ballot box even if the White House reject the request—though the president suffers at the polls for the decision, they conclude.
It’s a conclusion that Reeves finds satisfying.
“It’s a little better than this arbitrary idea of holding the president accountable for the weather,” said Reeves, a professor of political science at Boston University. “Obama did not cause the hurricane, but it’s well within his power to show leadership.”
In a separate paper published last year, Reeves found that in cases of less ferocious natural disasters, presidents are more inclined to grant federal disaster aid to so-called “battleground states”—states where the electoral divide between Democrats and Republicans is extremely thin.
The most important thing during a natural disaster is to save lives and minimize damage, Reeves noted.
But from a political standpoint, Obama would be wise to make it clear to voters that he’s on top of the situation.
Photographs the White House released this week on its Flickr photostream appear aimed to do just that, showing Obama solemnly meeting with federal emergency officials and members of his cabinet.
On Monday Obama cancelled a campaign appearance in Florida with former President Bill Clinton to return to Washington, where he was briefed on the storm in the White House Situation Room.
“The worst thing to do is to look like an absentee leader—what Bush looked like flying over New Orleans and looking down from an airplane,” Reeves said. “Or like a mayor vacationing at a tropical resort when their city is hit by a snowstorm.”