How weather affects elections

What history and political science tells us may happen next week after Sandy

Published October 30, 2012 6:00PM (EDT)

Even though most Americans probably have no idea who he is, Michael Bilandic's name is uttered like a curse in major city halls across the country when a big storm looms. Bilandic assumed Chicago’s mayorship after longtime Mayor Richard Daley died of a stroke in 1976, but he lost the job three years later thanks to a snow storm. After Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast just a week before the election, Bilandic’s saga should serve as a warning and lesson to President Obama, along with governors and mayors whose constituents were in the storm's path.

In January 1979, a massive blizzard dropped almost 20 inches of snow on Chicago, but it was the Bilandic administration’s response that crippled life in the city for weeks afterward and cost him his job. The errors were numerous and devastating. The mayor told people to move their cars off city streets and into parking lots, but when most were closed or unplowed, residents racked up stacks of parking tickets as the city kept enforcing its crackdown. Before that, the transit agency shut down stations in black neighborhoods, so stranded residents watched as trains full of whites sped out to the suburbs (where they don’t vote for the mayor). And to top it off, Bilandic gave a speech “equating the rebellious citizenry with the Romans who killed Christ or the Nazis who killed Jews,” as Chicago Tribune columnist William Griffin wrote in a front page story.

At the end of February, Bilandic lost the Democratic primary -- the only election that matters in the Chicago mayoral race -- to Jane Byrne. “In the end, God sent us 100 inches of snow in subzero weather, and I happened to lose the election because of it,” he told told Chicago Magazine in 2000.“The snow just proved what everyone had already come to know and see with their own eyes: that the system wasn’t working anymore,” Byrne added. By all accounts, Obama has done an able job handling the hurricane -- Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Chrisitie called Obama's performance "outstanding" --  and he probably won't call Americans Nazis any time soon, but the Bilandic story nonetheless underscores the stakes at hand.

And the evidence is more than just anecdotal. In research flagged by Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer, political scientists Andrew Reeves and John Gasper found that voters “punish both governors and presidents for damage caused by natural disasters.” At the same time, voters reward effective response to disasters. This is why presidents and governors work so hard to appear in control of the situation and put themselves front and center (Obama addressed the nation this morning on the hurricane, for instance). Meanwhile, political scientist Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen found that climatic events like droughts and floods in the months preceding an election can affect the outcome. They estimated that Al Gore lost 2.8 million votes to George W. Bush in certain states affected by drought or excessive rain.

But the biggest impact weather may have on the election might not be seen until Election Day itself. It’s conventional wisdom among pundits and strategists that bad weather can depress turnout, but it turns out to be very true. A 2007 study from political scientists Brad Gomez, Thomas Hansford and George Krause looked at the weather on Election Day in over 3,000 counties for the 14 presidential elections going back to 1948. They found that every inch of rain depresses turnout by just under 1 percent, and that depressed turnout tends to favor Republicans. With this massive data set of 43,000 cases, they were able to game out some counterfactuals of how elections would have gone if the weather had been different. In only two cases would it have changed the outcome, according to their models. 1960 was a very dry election, helping John F. Kennedy get enough Democrats to the polls to eke out a win. But 2000 was an unusually wet election, especially in parts of Florida. “If it had been a totally dry day in Florida, Gore would have won,” Hansford told Salon. Of course, there a lot of things this could be said for, Hansford quickly noted, from butterfly ballots to potential voter suppression.

Asked about how the hurricane might affect the election, Hansford said it was impossible to say. “I’m unaware of any kind of major event like this occurring this close to Election Day ... Certainly don’t have instances of it in our data, which go back to 1948,” he said.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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Barack Obama Election 2012 Hurricane Sandy Hurricanes Mitt Romney Weather