Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Frankenstorm and the election

I just happen to have five tabs open that address the question "what effect will Hurricane Sandy have on the election?" All of them are from sources that I normally look at. Imagine what I'd have found if I'd actually looked!

First, Accuweather posted the video Bad Weather and the Ballot Box on Sunday, which addresses the question in general.

The presidential election is only days away. How does the weather affect the number of people who show up to vote?
While this may not apply directly to Sandy, as its immediate effects will be over by election day, it does illuminate how past bad weather has effected previous elections. In particular, I didn't know about the heavy rains in Pensacola depressing turnout in 2000.

Speaking of depressing turnout, Nate Silver takes a cautious look at the possibility in Impact of Hurricane Sandy on Election Is Uncertain. Follow over the jump for the relevant excerpts, plus more from Michigan State University, Virginia Tech, and the host of the minor party debates, Free and Equal.

Some analysts have also expressed concern that the storm could depress turnout along the Eastern Seaboard on Election Day itself. Since the affected states are Democratic-leaning, and since many of them are so Democratic-leaning that they are likely to vote for Mr. Obama even in a low turnout, it is thought that this might reduce Mr. Obama’s national popular vote without hurting his standing in the Electoral College much, potentially increasing the risk of a split outcome.

This is a plausible argument, but let me offer a pair of cautions against it.

First, the Northeast is a wealthy party of the country, and wealthier regions have better infrastructure than impoverished ones, allowing them to recuperate more quickly after a disaster. Were the hurricane expected to hit at the same time next week, it would almost certainly be profoundly disruptive to the election. But the effects might be more modest a week from now.

Second, although the storm surge represents the most immediate threat from the hurricane, inland areas are under considerable risk as well. Hurricane Sandy could potentially flood riverbanks and other low-lying areas, both because of the storm surge carrying forth into them and then because of the potential for large amounts of rainfall. Moreover, these inland regions may be less well prepared to deal with the storm’s effects, especially given the news media’s tendency to focus its alerts on the impact to major, coastal cities and then to ignore the impact of a storm once it passes through them. (Hurricane Irene in 2011 produced more deaths in landlocked Vermont than in New York City.) Thus, Sandy’s after-effects could be felt in red-leaning areas like central Pennsylvania and West Virginia, along with others that are more Democratic-leaning.

Along the same lines, it is probably unwise to anticipate what effects the storm might have within particular states, such as whether it might affect the Democratic parts of Pennsylvania more than the Republican ones. Hurricane Sandy is just too large a storm, and has such unpredictable destructive potential, to make reliable guesses about this.
What about psychological effects that improve a candidate's standing? Michigan State University addresses that in Hurricane Sandy may be 2012’s “October Surprise.”
As in most presidential election years, the news media have been discussing the potential for an “October Surprise.”

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy may be just that, said Saundra Schneider, political science professor at Michigan State University.

Schneider (whose nickname happens to be “Sandy”) said incumbent candidates such as Barack Obama can take advantage of the offices they already occupy.

“An impending hurricane gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership through such activities as mobilizing resources, coordinating relief efforts and responding to the needs of disaster victims,” said Schneider. “These kinds of activities are important manifestations of public service, and they can be highlighted during a disaster situation.”

For non-incumbent candidates such as Mitt Romney, the situation is more problematic, said Schneider, whose 2011 book “Dealing with Disaster” analyzes governmental response to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

“Since they do not hold public office, they cannot take advantage of the communications opportunities that are readily available to incumbents,” she said. “They do not have the authority to mobilize resources or direct emergency response operations. Similarly, they cannot interfere with governmental response activities.”

As a result, it is far more difficult for non-incumbent candidates to attract media attention and get their messages out during disaster situations.
Nate Silver somewhat agrees with this opinion in the conclusion of his blog entry on the subject.
Academic studies on the effects of natural disasters on elections have produced somewhat ambiguous results, but don’t contradict the intuitive notion that a disaster response that seems well managed could help an incumbent, while a botched response (especially if the storm damage is severe) could harm him. However, most of these studies seek to evaluate the political effects of disasters on elections held months or even years later, so their utility for understanding the immediate political consequences of a disaster may be limited.
Ah, yes, ever cautious Nate.

As for an effect Sandy has already had on the election, here is an item I included in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Frankenstorm edition) that has already been affected.

Virginia Tech: 2012 Electorate: Who they are and how they vote
October 19, 2012
Exactly one week before Election Day, Virginia Tech will play host to a group of renowned journalists and writers who will discuss the “2012 Electorate: Who They Are and How They Vote.”

The Eleanor Clift Roundtable will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the Graduate Life Center auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

Clift, a political commentator and advocate for women’s professional lives, writes for Newsweek and the Daily Beast website. Clift has covered every presidential campaign since 1976. She has written about politics and policy in Washington, and the partisan clashes that are the result of a divided government.

An astute group of panelists including Pulitzer Prize winner Clarence Page, political strategist Simon Rosenberg, demographics specialist Ruy Teixeira, elections analyst Sean Trende, and Virginia Tech’s own University Distinguished Professor of English Nikki Giovanni, will join Clift. Robert E. Denton Jr., head of the Department of Communication, will serve as moderator.
That was how it looked on Saturday. Here's what the web page says today.
2012 Electorate event cancelled

Oct. 29 update: Due to weather, the 2012 electorate roundtable featuring Eleanor Clift and other journalists, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m., has been cancelled.
That's not all. The final third party presidential debate has been postponed until November 5th because of the hurricane.
Free and Equal Elections Foundation today announced the date of the second open-party Presidential debate has changed to November 5. The debate will feature Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, a line-up decided by voters last week after the first debate between Johnson, Stein, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode, and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson.

The November 5 debate will be held from 9:00pm to 10:30pm Eastern Time at RT America’s state of the art studio and facility. RT America will open its studio and offer a live, neutral feed via satellite to interested media. The moderator will be announced next week.
As you can see, Frankenstorm has already changed the election. The question is now "how much?"

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