The Correlation Between Natural Disasters and Political Behavior

Research suggests natural disasters can influence elections.

For years, social scientists have examined the relationship between natural disasters and voting behaviors. Although the findings vary when examining different countries, the data for The United States is relatively consistent: voters are more likely to ‘punish,’ (i.e. not re-elect) incumbent elected officials after a natural disaster. With this in mind, it’s important to consider how politicians chose to handle disasters when their jobs are in jeopardy.

A number of recent studies have produced fascinating information that examines the correlation between natural disasters and elections. A 2003 study conducted by Thomas A. Garrett and Russell S. Sobel concluded that “nearly half of all FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] disaster relief is explained by political influence rather than actual need.” In 2012, researchers John T. Gasper and Andrew Reeves found that governors who are up for reelection are more likely to request federal disaster relief. Similarly, a 2014 study conducted by Thomas Husted and David Nickerson demonstrated that presidents who are up for reelection are more likely to give federal aid. This is because, in an effort to redirect blame for natural disasters, incumbents will likely look to portray themselves as sympathetic people. Another study, conducted by Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra, determined that electorates are more likely to reward incumbents for disaster relief than disaster preparation. Because of this, politicians are less likely to place an emphasis on disaster preparation. The problem with this is that natural disasters are far less devastating if preparation is made a priority.

When examined together, the aforementioned studies (along with others of its kind that I haven’t included) demonstrate how natural disasters can affect political behavior. Most politicians are aware of the influence disasters can have on voters’ behaviors and, often for no other reason than self-interest, make sure to do what they think will get them more votes. So while the correlation between natural disasters and politics is interesting, it’s also a bit concerning. It’s fantastic when politicians make disaster recovery and/or prevention a priority. However, it’s not fantastic to use self-interest as a main reason to do it. Each and every politician should care about preparing for and dealing with natural disasters because lives are at risk, not because they’re eager to secure their own jobs.

Oliver SperansComment