Hillary Clinton is in Miami today to visit a state swept by Hurricane Matthew that is already feeling climate change on a regular basis. Her trip is part of a years-long trend of political leaders devoting more and more attention to weather disasters. “It’s the economy, stupid”—probably the most often-cited political saw of the Clinton administration. Rightly or wrongly, leaders are routinely credited with or punished for economic trends they have little or no control over. Mostly punished. The idea is that voters’ sense of financial security and general well-being drives their decisions at the ballot box. And then there’s the weather. Everybody complains about it, an even older saw goes, but nobody ever does anything about it. In their 2016 book, Democracy for Realists, two political scientists ask why people vote the way they do, and they conclude that the conventional political wisdom doesn’t add up. Their profession, they argue, has focused too much on voters’ issues and positions, overlooking the importance of social and group identity in voting.
Voters are indeed sensitive to economic conditions, but they are heavily biased toward the period right before an election and largely blind to longer-term trends, Princeton’s Christopher Achen and Vanderbilt’s Larry Bartels contend. An additional challenge: People are superbly bad at discerning the effect of a party’s policies on the economy, let alone how seemingly random fluctuations can change fortunes.
As a result, the authors say, “governments are punished willy-nilly for bad times, including bad times clearly due to events beyond the government’s control.”
As with economic hardship, natural disasters can influence voters’ moods around election time. Achen and Bartels pore over case studies, teasing out evidence that random disasters helped shape elections, from shark attacks off the New Jersey coast in 1916 to the 2000 presidential election. They conclude that former Vice President Al Gore, who is appearing with Clinton on Tuesday in Miami, may have lost seven states to George W. Bush because unusual weather patterns caused voters to lash out at the incumbent party. Their analysis “implies that 2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in 2000 because their states were too dry or two wet,” they write. “As it turned out, Gore could have used those votes.”