Hurricane Harvey has been battering the Gulf Coast for days. At least 38 people have been confirmed dead, more than 30,000 people are expected to be placed in temporary shelters and thousands more are still missing or stranded. As many as 500,000 people are expected to apply for disaster-relief aid, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Of course, public safety, not politics, is the top concern right now, but because victims often rely on the government to help them prepare for and recover from a natural disaster, the two are often intertwined. Once people move past the photos of politicians looking compassionate or insensitive in the aftermath of a natural disaster, how do voters assess, blame or reward government leaders for their response? And most importantly, how do politicians react to these incentives to prepare for future storms?
The easy answer is that both local and national leaders are rewarded at the polls when the public thinks they did a good job of handling natural disasters and punished when people think they did a bad job. But the full story is a bit more complicated for three reasons. For a politician’s handling of a disaster to be reflected at the polls, voters first need to be aware of the natural disaster and their elected officials. Second, they need to link the political actors with the disaster — that is, they have to believe that politicians should take some share of the blame and not place it all on, say, a stroke of bad luck or a negligent corporation. Third, they need to make an assessment that the leader handled the situation either well or poorly.
Let’s suppose the first two conditions are met and voters are ready to blame or reward a leader for a natural disaster. How do they do so?
In 2009, social scientists Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra pointed out that the federal government can invest disaster money either before a crisis — in disaster preparedness such as equipment to protect against flooding — or afterward — in disaster relief such as direct payments to victims. Because the federal executive branch has a lot of discretion over how this money is spent, the researchers argued that U.S. presidential election is a good proxy for analyzing whether voters reward disaster spending and, if they do, which kind they favor. The results, based on data from from 1988 to 2004, are dramatic: The researchers found that within one presidential election cycle, voters reward presidents for spending on relief, but not for spending on preparedness.1 This result holds for any event in the three years leading up to an election.
It’s unfortunate that we reward post-disaster spending, since it’s smarter to invest in preparedness. Healy and Malhotra found that spending roughly $1 on preparedness is worth the same as spending about $15 on relief, in terms of actual disaster management.2 What’s worse, relief spending tends not to improve affected regions’ future preparedness.
Healy and Malhotra posit that voters reward relief spending because it feels direct and targeted, whereas preparedness is a collective good, so the results are less obvious to an individual voter. Plus, good disaster preparedness means that a would-be disaster may end up not being a disaster at all — so voters may not even realize there’s something to reward. (This logic extends to effective counterterrorism and other preventive measures, too.)
Of course, it’s not always the president whose political future is at stake. Disasters can be crucibles for local politicians, too. In 2011, political scientists John Gasper and Andrew Reeves analyzed county-level disaster damage incurred in the six months prior to a presidential or gubernatorial election between 1970 and 2006.3 They found that, not surprisingly, incumbent presidents and governors are both punished in elections after a natural disaster. But if a governor’s requests for assistance are refused by the president, the president tends to be punished while the governor is rewarded.
But this doesn’t mean politicians, local or national, can just throw money at relief spending and expect to coast back into office. While researchers have found empirical evidence that these effects exist at the national and state levels, it turns out that at the local level, mayors may suffer electoral consequences if the public believes their city or town was not adequately prepared for a disaster. Social scientists Kevin Arceneaux and Robert Stein found this effect in a 2006 paper that looked at elections following major floods. Why might this finding appear only at a local level? We return to our three conditions above: This punishment effect is only evident in locations where the flooding is severe and the public is attentive to politics. Again it seems we are most interested in what affects us directly.
The assumptions required for a lot of political science research may seem to flatten people’s motivations, which can make it sound like politicians care only about getting elected and voters are all self-serving and shortsighted. Of course, in real life, politicians are likely not thinking solely about re-election when they make policy decisions, and voters weigh many factors when choosing leaders. But this research is useful in that it reveals the incentives that can drive voters and politicians, as a group, to make choices that may not be in our best long-term interests.
On the one hand, these findings are to be expected: Leaders at all levels who respond poorly to natural disasters are punished in elections. But on the other hand, because the effects are so strong, leaders who want to get re-elected are incentivized to prioritize disaster relief over preparedness, which is far less effective at preventing deaths. Perhaps the way out of this dilemma is to encourage voters to demand funding for disaster preparedness. Failing that, politicians will have to make a selfless adjustment and become less attached to staying in office.
Neither option seems particularly easy.