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Can Storms Sway Elections?

President Obama explained at a news conference on Monday how the federal government was preparing for the impact of Hurricane Sandy. When he was finished, a reporter asked how the storm might affect the election. Here’s what the president said:

I am not worried at this point about the election. I’m worried about the impact on families. I’m worried about the impact on our first responders. I’m worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation. The election will take care of itself next week.

Which is the right answer. The election is much, much less important than all of those things.

But still. Could Hurricane Sandy affect it?

I asked Neil Malhotra, an associate professor of business and political science at Stanford University, who has a paper forthcoming in the Annual Review of Political Science about the various factors, including disasters, that influence voting.

Malhotra and his co-author, Andrew Healy, an associate professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University, conclude after examining the literature that voters can be irrational—for instance, blaming an incumbent for economic woes that may be outside the incumbent’s control.

And sometimes they can be silly. The researchers cite a 2010 study that found that incumbents get a slight advantage (1.6 percent) in elections that follow a victory by the local college football team.

When it comes to disasters, though, it’s hard to sort out whether an incumbent benefits. In an earlier study, Malhotra and Healy found that voters tended to punish incumbents for economic damage caused by tornadoes, but the death toll didn’t seem to have any effect. Go figure.

As for the hurricane, Malhotra thinks that, in this election, the storm will probably help Obama more than it does Romney. While people tend to hold it against the federal government if there’s a lousy response to a major disaster (see Katrina), we probably won’t know much about the response to Sandy until after the election. In the meantime, Malhotra says, Obama gets to “look presidential and on top of things”—which is how he seemed in the news conference on Monday.

Obama’s Republican opponent is in a tougher position. “Romney has two bad options,” Malhotra says. “One is not campaign. And the other is campaign and look callous.”

Interestingly, a competent response to a disaster can yield long-term electoral benefits. The authors cite a 2011 study showing that voters in Germany rewarded incumbents for their response to widespread flooding not just in the election held immediately after the disaster but also in the next election.

It’s striking, in reading Malhotra and Healy’s paper, how many little factors influence our voting decisions, some rational and some not. Whatever happens with the storm, it’s certain that Sandy won’t be the only thing on people’s minds when they walk into the voting booth.

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