Voters Punish Incumbents For Bad Weather

Via Joshua Tucker, Larry Bartels & Christopher Achen on the political science of hurricanes (PDF):

Students of democratic politics have long believed that voters punish incumbents for hard times. Governments bear the responsibility for the economy in the modern era, so that replacing incompetent managers with capable alternatives appears to be a well-informed, rational act. However, this vision of a sophisticated retrospective electorate does not bear close examination. We find that voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks. As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties. Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. Neither conventional understandings of democratic responsiveness nor rational choice interpretations of retrospective voting survive under this interpretation of voting behavior.

I’ve had some correspondents ask me if I think a hurricane could have some kind of stimulative effect via some counterintuitive broken windows dynamic or something. My read is that there’s no silver lining in this whatsoever. Walking around my neighborhood around noon yesterday when it wasn’t even especially hurricane-y, it looked like all the restaurants were doing an unusually small volume of business. I saw footage last night of a dead empty Times Square. The last week of summer business has been totally ruined for the Outer Banks, Delmarva, and Jersey Shore beach communities. Completely apart from the actual physical damage, the hurricane has just put an enormous damper on the basic service economy in the most densely populated swathe of the country.