With the death, destruction, flooding, power outages and transportation disruptions caused by Sandy the superstorm, it may seem crass to ask about the impact on next week’s election.
But here’s a question: Could the trail of devastation left by the storm in a part of the nation whose states are generally colored blue in presidential races depress turnout in those states, especially among Democrats?
And if enough of that happened, could President Obama still win those states (because of the Democrats’ lopsided advantage in places like New York and New Jersey, adding their electoral votes to his column) but lose enough popular votes to put him behind Mitt Romney in that count nationally when all is said and done?
That would hasten an election result many experts have said is not out of the realm of possibility — with Obama winning the election by reaching or exceeding 270 electoral votes, and Romney winning the popular vote.
But while it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense that such major disruptions in blue states might hurt Democratic more than Republican turnout, there are too many variables to know what will happen.
As Nate Silver of the The New York Times‘ FiveThirtyEight blog wrote Tuesday, for instance:
“… Nor do I necessarily think that it can be taken for granted that the storm will reduce turnout all that much, even in the worst-affected regions. Although the storm’s after-effects may make it physically harder for some people to vote, disasters can also increase civic-mindedness and patriotism, attitudes that make voting more likely.”
As Silver points out, one difficult-to-gauge variable is the extent of the damage in specific Republican versus Democratic counties.
Take New Jersey, for instance. It has been a decidedly blue state in recent national elections. In 2008, Obama won the Garden State by 56.8 percent of the vote to 42.1 percent for the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
But much of the Jersey Shore leaned toward McCain, and those are among the areas hardest hit by Sandy in the state. Ocean County, for instance, which includes the townships of Toms River and Barnegat, gave McCain 59 percent of its vote to 40 percent for Obama.
So while voting could prove difficult in Democratic strongholds like Newark, where power is likely to be out for days, and Atlantic City, where large-scale flooding occurred in addition to power outages, Republican areas will likely be affected, too.
Another variable is the benefit Obama may gain from overseeing the federal response and being praised effusively for it by the likes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
On the Tuesday morning news shows, Christie said Obama and administration officials have been constantly in touch with him before, during and after the disaster.
On MSNBC, Christie said: “It’s been very good working with the president. He and his administration have been coordinating with us. It’s been wonderful.”
Such high praise coming from a Republican governor, a rising star in his party and a strong Romney ally who heretofore has also been one of the GOP’s most effective Obama critics, could conceivably make some Republican-leaning but open-minded voters rethink their opposition to Obama and the federal government.
And Christie’s positive message about Obama is likely to get some reinforcement Wednesday by the visuals that emerge from a scheduled visit by Obama to New Jersey to tour the storm damage with the governor.
Political scientists have studied the impact of meteorology and even disasters on elections and turnout and reached mixed conclusions. (h/t The Monkey Cage blog.)
For instance, it appears that bad weather on Election Day itself has worked more in favor of Republican turnout over Democrats in the past.
The summary of a new research paper by three political scientists explains:
“We find that, when compared to normal conditions, rain significantly reduces voter participation by a rate of just less than 1% per inch, while an inch of snowfall decreases turnout by almost .5%. Poor weather is also shown to benefit the Republican party’s vote share. Indeed, the weather may have contributed to two Electoral College outcomes, the 1960 and 2000 presidential elections.”
But that doesn’t speak to the effect of disasters on elections. There the research is more mixed.
Some researchers found that voters have frequently taken out their frustrations in the wake of natural disasters like droughts and floods on presidents.
But another researcher found that natural disasters can help presidents, too. Voters of the same party as a president who responds to a disaster with federal aid will often turn out to a higher degree while turnout is reduced for voters of the opposition party.
From the article’s abstract:
“This article argues that the government delivery of distributive aid increases the incumbent party’s turnout but decreases opposition-party turnout. The theoretical intuition here is that an incumbent who delivers distributive benefits to the opposing party’s voters partially mitigates these voters’ ideological opposition to the incumbent, hence weakening their motivation to turn out and oust the incumbent. Analysis of individual-level data on FEMA hurricane disaster aid awards in Florida, linked with voter-turnout records from the 2002 (pre-hurricane) and 2004 (post-hurricane) elections, corroborates these predictions. Furthermore, the timing of the FEMA aid delivery determines its effect: aid delivered during the week just before the November 2004 election had especially large effects on voters, increasing the probability of Republican (incumbent party) turnout by 5.1% and decreasing Democratic (opposition party) turnout by 3.1%. But aid delivered immediately after the election had no effect on Election Day turnout.”
In any event, if Obama winds up losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College and re-election, Sandy may at least provide him and his supporters with a plausible explanation for why that happened if they can show that the turnout of their voters in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast was hampered by the disaster.
That may be difficult to definitely prove, however. Gallup reported Tuesday that polling done before Sandy indicated that turnout was already expected to be lower than in either 2004 or 2008.