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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Election 2004: Charley, Frances, and Ivan May Cast the Deciding Votes

Yesterday I discussed the finding of Princeton political scientists Achen & Bartels that the weather can shift a percentage point or so of the vote for president. They analyze 20th century presidential elections and show that votes for the incumbent fall in states where the weather is bad. They conclude, "we find that voters regularly punish incumbent governments for [natural disasters], as long as they can find some psychologically appealing connection--whether plausible or not--between the disaster and the government."

The don't really offer an explanation for this, only a lot of evidence that many people give very little thought to politics. But a number of explanations seem possible. The weather does directly affect some people's livelihoods (such as farmers, employees in the tourist industry, and construction workers). Psychologists tell us that the weather can affect mood. Bad weather may raise fears of global warming and increase the salience of environmental issues. The Bible teaches that God afflicts the unrighteous with bad weather:
And if you will obey [God's] commandments...he will give the rain for your land...that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil....Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, and the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and he shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit, and you perish quickly off the good land which the LORD gives you. [Deuteronomy 11:13-17]
America is a religious country, and some see hurricanes and natural disasters as signs of God's wrath, or at least God's will, although others emphasize that the rain falls on both the just and the unjust. And of course many mainstream churches share environmentalists concerns about humanity's affect on the climate. So I think the Achen & Bartels results are plausible: there are plenty of "psychologically appealing connections" between the weather and the government.

But the real question is will the weather help Kerry or Bush? What do the skies foretell for this November?

First, consider Charley and Frances, the two devastating hurricanes that recently hit Florida. The conventional analysis says that George Bush benefits from a chance to dole out disaster-relief money, but is hurt because Floridians weren't paying much attention to the Republican convention. But if Achen and Bartels are right, it's much more important that Floridians, repairing trashed houses, waiting for power to be restored, and sweltering in 90-degree heat without air conditioning, are mighty unhappy. So chalk up Florida, and probably the election, for Kerry.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss the rest of the country.

UPDATE: See also first post and third post.

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