The Politics of Frankenstorm: Hurricane Sandy’s Impact on Election 2012

David K. Twigg is director at the Jack D. Gordon Institute of Public Policy and Citizenship Studies at Florida International University and author of The Politics of Disaster: Tracking the Impact of Hurricane Andrew.

National attention now focuses on a unique and monstrously widespread weather event: former Hurricane Sandy, dubbed “Frankenstorm” after coincidentally hitting at Halloween. Twenty years ago, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew—a severe, compact wind event that lasted for hours—devastated southern Dade County, Florida.  Compared to Andrew, Sandy was more of a flooding event, stretching over a huge geographic area, home to a significant population. It will take days or weeks for the water to recede.

Incumbent advantage in presidential campaigns stems from being well-known and having the support of business interests and voters.  Most incumbents attract more campaign donations and more votes than challengers.  A natural disaster can add to that advantage – depending on how the incumbent responds in the aftermath.  Sandy struck eight days before the 2012 national elections. Andrew struck eight days before Florida’s 1992 primaries.

During the 1992 primaries, campaign reelection efforts were largely abandoned post-Andrew.  There were physical barriers: people were displaced, electric power was out, neither mail nor telephones worked normally and traffic patterns changed drastically.  In fact, campaigns were no longer the focus of elected officials, who immediately led relief activities and recovery planning.  Officials were in positions to help and did their jobs accordingly. This made incumbents more visible and their constituents openly appreciated their efforts; they were in effect campaigning without campaigning. Democrats brought Republican officials to constituent meetings: Partisan politics were largely suspended as all elected officials focused on targeted constituent service of disaster relief and recovery.

As Sandy threatened, President Obama cancelled campaign events, going on national television to assure potential victims that the federal government was ready and that aid would be provided sans the restrictions of bureaucratic rules.  That message has been repeated.  Challenger Romney, not a public official, also cancelled campaign events, but is in a position only to provide or coordinate collecting and distributing supplies for relief.  Romney’s position now is similar to Ross Perot’s in 1992, although voters in south Dade certainly appreciated Perot’s substantial personal donation and public support of the Salvation Army and its Hurricane Andrew relief efforts.  Perot received a larger percentage of support in south Dade than anywhere else in Dade County – but that peak of about 16% was hardly enough to win.

After Andrew, primary elections were postponed for a week in Dade County, but only after state courts so-ruled, at the last minute.  (The Florida legislature was not in session, Governor Chiles did not believe he had the authority to move elections, and 66 of Florida’s 67 counties saw no need to disrupt scheduled elections.)

In this election, Sandy’s biggest impact will likely be on voter turnout.  FEMA, under President Obama’s direction, has advised Election Day activities to facilitate voting are a definite part of federal relief efforts; state and local governments will be refunded for expenses related to moving/replacing precincts.

Successful candidates must be able to garner support and get their supporters to the polls to vote.

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