On Thursday morning yet another huge story will infiltrate the US election campaign. Along with a global pandemic, race riots reigniting Wisconsin, and mass unemployment, the natural world now enters the fray. Storm Laura designated as a category four hurricane will bring an ‘unsurvivable storm surge’ and ‘catastrophic wind damage’ as it hits parts of eastern Texas and western Louisiana.
But what effect may the storm have on the views of voters in the two states – with Texas seen as a toss-up in the Presidential race. Although we are a long way off election day for the storm to have a truly seismic impact on the campaign, it is worth analysing previous natural disasters to see what effect they can have on US elections.
Comparing the political results from Hurricane Sandy, Katrina and a series of shark attacks in New Jersey, two common factors emerge in determining the views of the electorate. First, the kind of narrative of the event that is developed within the public discourse, something that is in part shaped by the media. Second, politicians are more heavily criticised for the negative effects of a storm if they or their party have been in power long enough to be afforded responsibility for pre-existing faults that made areas more vulnerable.
The narrative: the beach attacks that inspired Jaws.
On 1st July 1916, Charles Vansant was attacked by a shark along the New Jersey Coast, the first such 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 the 14th July panic was widespread amongst the state’s electorate, with numerous sharks now being killed along the shore and 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% vacancy rate at the height of summer.
The human and economic cost of this disaster was dreadful for those involved and 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, with others showing 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 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, he experienced an 8.2% drop in support in areas affected by the attacks. In those areas further away from the coastline, he gained 0.2% on average.
The government cannot reasonably have been expected to defend the state against this kind of shark 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.
The importance of ensuring such a narrative doesn’t form following the impact of Storm Laura 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% increase in his vote as 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 onto Obama. He was seen by many affected as having risen to the challenge.
In contrast, George Bush never recovered from the narrative that he allowed to develop 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 on the return from his holiday. In his 2010 memoir, Bush accepts ‘the easiest person to blame is the president’ and admits he should have acted more decisively.
Despite the city’s flood control measures resulting in a shrinkage of the soils, leaving over 50% of the land below sea level, and only 60-90% of the levee system having been completed, all of which 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 in that praise transcended partisan politics, with Republican Governor Chris Christie’s efforts being judged an ‘A or B grade’ by 85% 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, he had been elected in 2000, and thus once Katrina hit in 2005 sufficient time had passed for such blame to be assigned.
Natural disasters are unpredictable in their occurrence and impact, but for voters, this does not insulate politicians from blame – even when pre-existing vulnerabilities are not reasonably at fault (like in the beach shark attacks) or indeed their responsibility. As we near the November election America can expect more storms to hit. From Storm Laura onwards narrative and timing will shape public perceptions. The former, one would expect, most likely to damage Trump if allowed to form negatively. The latter, a vulnerability for Biden – who symbolises more than most, the faults and strengths of Democratic governments of the past.