Another natural disaster has befallen America; this time a hurricane.
Over the next couple of days Hurricane Epsilon will ‘bring dangerous and potentially life-threatening surf and rip current’ along the East Coast of the United States — the US Hurricane Centre had warned. Its impact is judged not to be of too much threat, and is likely to cause only a mere ripple on the US election as we enter its final week.
But what effect do natural disasters have on voters? It’s worth taking a look at previous natural disasters to see their potential impact come election season.
Comparing the political results from Hurricane Sandy, Katrina and a series of shark attacks in New Jersey, two common factors emerge in understanding the behaviour of voters. First, the kind of narrative that develops within the public’s discourse post-event — in part shaped by the media. Second, politicians are more heavily criticised for the negative effects following a natural disaster if they or their party have been in power long enough to be afforded responsibility for preexisting faults that made areas more vulnerable.
The narrative: The beach attacks that inspired Jaws
On July 1st 1916, Charles Vansant was attacked by a shark along the New Jersey Coast. This was the first recorded attack in the history of the state. Vansant later died from blood loss, and in the following twelve days a further three people were killed and another injured. By July 14th panic was widespread amongst the state’s electorate, with numerous sharks now being killed along the shore and a steel mesh installed at beaches. A quarter of a million dollars in reservations were cancelled by tourists within a week, and some resorts were left with a 75 per cent vacancy rate at the height of summer.
The human and economic cost of this disaster was dreadful for those involved and those who lived near the affected beaches. In the aftermath, it was revealed that no arm of government — state or federal — had patrolled the coastline for sharks, built barriers to protect the beach, or indeed pursued any sort of preventive action. The public was furious.
President Wilson, who was unfortunate enough to face the state’s electorate soon after the attacks, was hurt at the polls because of the narrative that was allowed to develop. Newspaper cartoons used a shark fin as the symbol for Wilson’s potential loss, while other depictions showed lawyers represented by sharks heading toward beleaguered sailboats, where a legless victim ‘dangled over the gunnel depicting deposits’.
The shark attacks had entered the public’s imagination. The discourse and narrative around the event had been formed and firmly set. As a result, Wilson was blamed. Comparing Wilson’s vote in the 1912 election (held before the attacks occurred) with his performance in 1916, we can see that he experienced an 8.2 per cent drop in support in areas affected by the attacks. In those areas further away from the coastline, he gained 0.2 per cent on average.
The government cannot reasonably have been expected to defend the state against these types of predatory attacks. After all, one had never been recorded before. But this form of rational explanation was overwhelmed by an emotive public imagination — that had crucially been affirmed before the date of the next election. Allowing this narrative to form was Wilson’s mistake. This serves as a crucial lesson for those politicians who hope any inquiry into their handling of Covid-19 will negate current accusations from the public of delay and incompetence as products of scientific advice.
Ensuring that another accusatory narrative doesn’t form following the impact of Storm Epsilon, should be a key goal for the Trump campaign. They should look to Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which arrived within a week of the presidential election, as proof of what a positive narrative can achieve.
According to a study conducted by Yamil Velex and David Martin, the state of Virginia would likely have been won by Mitt Romney had it not been for the storm. In areas that were affected by Katrina, Obama experienced a 4 per cent increase in his vote when compared to comparative voters (based on demographics) in areas elsewhere. The impact it had on the dynamics of the campaign, in particular the dominance of the event in media coverage, brought greater focus on Obama. He was seen by many affected as having risen to the challenge.
In contrast, George Bush never recovered from the narrative that developed following Hurricane Katrina. It was perceived that he did not care for the thousands affected in New Orleans, following the dreadful decision to fly over the state without stopping following a holiday. In his 2010 memoir, Bush says that ‘the easiest person to blame is the president’ but admits that he should have acted more decisively.
Despite the city’s flood control measures resulting in a shrinkage of the soils, leaving over 50 per cent of the land below sea level and only 60-90 per cent of the levee system having been completed (factors that increased the area’s vulnerability), the President was primarily blamed.
Infrastructural Problems: All about timing
Underlining the impact following Katrina though was how disastrous these infrastructural faults had been. Around one million people were displaced from their homes, and 1,833 people died as a result of the storm. This would have hurt any leader. Obama in his handling of Sandy was helped by a successful response on all levels — illustrated when praise transcended partisan politics, with Republican Governor Chris Christie’s efforts being judged an ‘A or B grade’ by 85 per cent of respondents. What was crucial in Katrina becoming a seismic political defeat was the length of time Bush had been president.
A 2011 paper by the ‘International Studies Association Conference by Boussalis, Coan and Patel’ looked at the effects of natural disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes on elections between 1980 and 2007. They found that incumbent ‘parties suffered most if enough time had passed whilst they were in office for voters to assign blame’ to them.
For Bush, who had been elected in 2000, once Katrina hit in 2005 sufficient time had already passed for such blame to be designated.
Natural disasters are unpredictable in their occurrence and impact, but from the perspective of voters this does not insulate politicians from blame — even when preexisting vulnerabilities are not at fault (as in the beach shark attacks) or indeed their responsibility.
Narrative and timing shape public perceptions. The former, certainly applies to Trump. He must not let it become too negative. The latter, is a vulnerability that concerns Biden — who symbolises more than most, the faults and strengths of Democratic governments of the past.