While Hurricane Ian is primarily a human and meteorological story, it is also a political story. Ian is the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Gov. Ron DeSantis was elected in 2018.1 As a result, it has the potential to be a defining moment for his governorship.
That’s significant because DeSantis is up for reelection in a month and because he’s rumored to have presidential aspirations in 2024. If Floridians — and Americans — approve of his handling of the storm recovery, it could give him a strong story of leadership to tell on the campaign trail. But if he is seen as bungling the response, it could also imperil his political future. So the question is, will DeSantis’s response to Hurricane Ian boost his political career or derail it?
It’s too early to answer that question, but historically, governors in DeSantis’s shoes have been met with inconsistent political fates. I looked back at the states hit hardest by the 19 tropical cyclones that caused more than $10 billion2 in damage in the U.S. this century and how their governors’ polling numbers changed after the storms. And while the average governor’s approval rating did increase after the storms, most of the time, those increases were minor. (Important caveat: It’s impossible to know whether the storms directly caused those numbers to move; other important events may have affected public opinion during that time, too.)
|Allison||June 2001||$14b||TX||Rick Perry||51%||67%||+16%|
|Charley||Aug. 2004||25||FL||Jeb Bush||45||62||+17|
|Ivan||Sept. 2004||32||AL||Bob Riley||*||*||*|
|Jeanne||Sept. 2004||12||FL||Jeb Bush||62||55||-7|
|Katrina||Aug. 2005||186||LA||Kathleen Blanco||50||41||-9|
|Rita||Sept. 2005||27||TX||Rick Perry||49||43||-6|
|Wilma||Oct. 2005||28||FL||Jeb Bush||53||53||0|
|Ike||Sept. 2008||40||TX||Rick Perry||*||*||*|
|Irene||Aug. 2011||17||NC||Bev Perdue||37||40||+3|
|Sandy||Oct. 2012||82||NJ||Chris Christie||56||77||+21|
|Matthew||Oct. 2016||12||NC||Pat McCrory||41||45||+4|
|Harvey||Aug. 2017||149||TX||Greg Abbott||45||48||+3|
|Irma||Sept. 2017||60||FL||Rick Scott||46||59||+13|
|Maria||Sept. 2017||107||PR||Ricardo Rosselló||39||38||-1|
|Florence||Sept. 2018||28||NC||Roy Cooper||49||53||+4|
|Michael||Oct. 2018||29||FL||Rick Scott||43||43||0|
|Laura||Aug. 2020||26||LA||John Bel Edwards||*||*||*|
|Ida||Aug. 2021||79||LA||John Bel Edwards||52||54||+2|
A few governors became significantly more popular after conducting an emergency response to a storm hitting their state. For example, then-Gov. Chris Christie burnished his image by engaging in bipartisan work with then-President Barack Obama after the storm formerly known as3 Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012. According to polling that year from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Christie’s approval rating among registered voters increased from 56 percent before the storm to 77 percent after. And according to Quinnipiac University, then-Gov. Jeb Bush saw his approval rating spike from 45 percent to 62 percent after hurricanes Charley and Frances hit Florida. They made landfall in the state less than a month apart in 2004, and 87 percent of Florida voters approved of Bush’s recovery efforts.
But most of the time, storms didn’t seem to change many people’s opinions about their governors — even when they thought their governor did a good job with disaster response. For example, look at North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper after Hurricane Florence in 2018. While 84 percent of registered voters told Climate Nexus that Cooper’s response to Florence was “good” or “very good,” SurveyUSA found that his approval rating increased from 49 percent less than five months before the storm to 53 percent a couple of weeks after it.
The electoral track record is also mixed for governors who were running for reelection when a hurricane struck their state (the position DeSantis is in now). For example, in October 2016, 71 percent of likely North Carolina voters were satisfied with then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s response to Hurricane Matthew. And McCrory appeared to get a bump in head-to-head polls against Cooper, his Democratic opponent. But that bump was short-lived, and McCrory lost reelection a few weeks later. And, in October 2018, 61 percent of likely Florida voters approved of how then-Gov. Rick Scott handled the response to Hurricane Michael. But the term-limited Scott fell further behind in his race for U.S. Senate: According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, his chance of winning went from 41 in 100 on the day Michael hit to 32 in 100 two weeks later. But then, surprisingly, Scott won the race in an upset.
So if history is any guide, Hurricane Ian may not significantly affect DeSantis’s approval rating (which, as of August, was an even 50 percent, per the University of North Florida) or his chances of winning reelection (which, as of Sept. 28, were 93 in 100, per the FiveThirtyEight forecast). But a lot depends on how DeSantis handles the storm’s aftermath. It turns out that voters are pretty rational: Political scientists who have studied this topic have found that voters reward incumbents for proactive disaster responses (e.g., delivering relief funds) and punish them for inadequate ones (e.g., not issuing a disaster declaration).
We see this in the real world, too. The governors who became more unpopular after their hurricanes were often those whose responses were the most ineffectual. For example, former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was widely criticized for her response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, particularly for waiting too long to order an evacuation and request federal troops for assistance. The state’s recovery from the storm was also slow and painful, and Blanco’s approval rating (per SurveyUSA) fell from 50 percent a couple weeks before the storm to 41 percent a couple weeks after — and it continued to decline in subsequent months, all the way to 33 percent in December.
The story was similar in Puerto Rico. Six months after Hurricane Maria, 50 percent of Puerto Ricans rated Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s response to the hurricane as “good” or “very good,” and his approval rating was about the same as it had been three months before the storm. But as infrastructure remained unrepaired and power outages lingered, a different poll conducted a few months later gave him more mediocre reviews: Only 31 percent rated his response to Maria as “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.” And a year after that, Rosselló resigned amid protests sparked by his offensive Telegram messages (some about Maria victims) and primed by general discontent with his administration.
So it’s possible that DeSantis’s disaster response could significantly affect his popularity. However, there is also one big reason to think it will not: Public opinion of him is already very baked in. Per that UNF poll, 45 percent of likely voters strongly approved of DeSantis, and 41 percent strongly disapproved; only 5 percent somewhat approved, and only 7 percent somewhat disapproved. In other words, it appears that DeSantis’s pugnacious style and embrace of the culture wars has left few Floridians willing to change their minds about him.
Indeed, political-science research has found that partisanship affects how people perceive politicians in the wake of natural disasters — which could explain why their polling numbers usually don’t change much. One study found that people are more likely to blame politicians of the opposite party when governments flub hurricane-recovery efforts. If this happens in Florida, maybe Democrats will blame DeSantis, but Republicans will not and could instead take out their frustration on President Biden. Another study found that voters of the incumbent’s party tend to reward that incumbent after natural disasters, while voters of the opposite party tend to punish them. In other words, the natural disaster just confirmed the voters’ partisan biases. It’s not hard to imagine the same thing happening with DeSantis.