It could well be argued that the ongoing soap opera that is the US Presidential Election is packed with sufficient amounts of drama (especially this year) not to need the climate to weigh in and stir up proceedings. Yet that hasn’t stopped such an event from happening in the past, and evidence suggests that extreme weather events have more of an impact on the outcome (and therefore the course of history) than may be expected.
2000: GORE’S INCONVENIENT DROUGHTS
Former Vice President Al Gore is well known now for his climate activism, and it is reasonable to wonder how climate action in the US (indeed, in the world) may have unfolded differently in the early years of the 21st century had he made it to the Oval Office as opposed to President George W Bush – whose key contribution was to pull the country out of the Kyoto Protocol. The cruel irony for Gore is that the climate could have been one of the key reasons why he lost the election. Famously, just 537 individual votes separated the candidates in the crucial swing state of Florida, handing its entire 25 electoral college votes – and the presidency – to Bush, despite Gore receiving roughly 500,000 extra votes across the country.
However, there’s more to the story than just Florida. In the summer of 2000, many American states were suffering the impact of extreme weather. The Palmer Hydrological Drought Index – a measure of long term drought – was roughly ten per cent higher than the historical average, with much of the South (including Florida) experiencing severe drought, while much of the West was blighted by excessive rainfall. Many residents took out their climate-induced grievances on the Clinton administration and their Democratic candidate, Al Gore. A report by Christopher Achen, Associate Professor of Politics at Princeton University, and Larry Bartels, Professor of Public and International Affairs and Founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University, concluded that ‘2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in 2000 because their States were too dry or too wet’. The authors estimate that these additional votes would have handed Gore a further seven states – Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Missouri – which would have yielded a whopping 338 to 199 electoral college vote victory, and – crucially – the keys to the White House.
2012: ROMNEY BURIES HIS HEAD IN THE SAND
In October 2012, President Barack Obama was having a tough time in his re-election campaign. Neck-and-neck in the polls with Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the election sat on a knife edge.
Enter Hurricane Sandy. A mere one week before the country turned out to vote, much of the country’s east coast – particularly New York and New Jersey – was battered by 90 mph winds, directly costing 72 lives in the US (out of a total of 147 across the wider region) and causing an estimated $71.4billion of damage.
Obama went on to a comfortable 332 to 206 win in the election, and many pundits attributed this to the additional, broadly positive coverage he received while responding to the disaster, with suggestions it had given him a ‘political advantage’. Romney himself subsequently highlighted the impact of Sandy, saying to CNN he wished ‘the hurricane hadn’t... happened when it did because it gave the President a chance to be presidential and to be out showing sympathy for folks. That’s one of the advantages of incumbency.’
These gut conclusions, however, can be taken with a significantly large pinch of salt. Research conducted by Joshua Hart, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Union College, New York, did not back up these claims, instead finding that, if anything, voters affected by the hurricane were slightly more likely to vote against Obama not for him. Yet again, the ballot box was an effective way for people to register their climate distress by voting against the status quo.
2016: IS MATTHEW THE TRUMP CARD?
Could the 2016 election to decide upon the 45th President of the United States be impacted in the same way? Just three weeks ago, southeastern states such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida – still a key swing state – were buffeted by Hurricane Matthew, fresh from bludgeoning its way through the Caribbean, causing immense havoc and killing over a thousand people across Haiti and surrounding countries.
Both candidates expressed sympathy for those affected by the Category 5 hurricane. A statement by Republican candidate Donald Trump read, ‘Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in the path of Hurricane Matthew, namely in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas,’ while Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of Hurricane Matthew’s victims. The federal government should do everything it can to help states and communities respond to the storm and build back better to withstand future disasters.’
However, history teaches us that potentially more significant than candidates’ personal actions or rhetoric – especially on the vital policy issue of climate action, with Trump claiming he will pull the US from the Paris Agreement – could be if voters respond to the disaster by punishing the sitting administration: Clinton’s Democratic Party. ‘Droughts and floods in general have a negative effect on electoral support for the president’s party,’ continue Achen and Bartels. ‘That negative effect is not coincidental; nor is it simply a matter of voters rationally punishing particular presidents for failing to prepare adequately for or respond adequately to particular disasters. It is a pervasive risk to the reelection chances of every incumbent party, and no more controllable than the rain.’