All disasters are political But which politicians stand to win and lose the most?
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | August 26,2012
In a public opinion survey conducted by an unidentified political campaign last month, pollsters sought to gauge registered voters’ thoughts on an interesting question:
Who deserves credit for the state’s response to Tropical Storm Irene?
The answer will no doubt influence the outcome of the November elections. And while the two men vying to serve as Vermont’s next governor scoff at any suggestion they’re making political hay from one of the worst natural disasters ever to befall this state, Irene will inevitably serve as a backdrop to the campaigns of both Democratic incumbent Peter Shumlin and Republican challenger Randy Brock.
The effect of catastrophe on elections is as real a phenomenon as the weather event that spawned last year’s floods. In a FEMA white paper titled “The Politics of Disaster: Principles for Local Emergency Managers and Elected Officials,” Michael Selves, then-director of emergency management and homeland security for Johnson County, Kan., posits that “all disasters are political.”
“Whether we want to believe it or not, political considerations are a significant factor in the preparation for, response to, recovery from and mitigation of disaster events,” said Selves, who in 2004 was appointed to a national emergency preparedness task force by then-Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.
Among the factors affecting the political significance of disaster, “and this is meant sincerely, not cynically,” Selves wrote, is “the fact that a disaster occurs during an election year.”
Using the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as a case study, Selves notes that when George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 he was “elected by the barest of electoral majorities, and actually loses the popular vote, (and) is perceived to be weak with questionable leadership skills.”
“Sept. 11, 2001, occurs, and that same president’s handling of the resulting impact of the attack is perceived as masterful and, as of this writing, (he) enjoys one of the most popular presidencies of modern times,” Selves wrote.
In 2010, Shumlin won the governorship by less than 2 percentage points over Republican Brian Dubie. According to two polls conducted since Irene struck last August, he wields a more than 30-point edge over Brock.
It’s impossible to isolate the impact of Irene on Shumlin’s rosy re-election prospects. But the first-term governor has, on the whole, won praise for his handling of the aftermath. And he’s already looking to use it to his advantage.
Shumlin this weekend is on a four-day tour of towns hit hardest by Irene. A news release announcing the tour called it an “Irene anniversary commemorative celebration.”
Brock calls it a taxpayer-funded campaign junket.
Shumlin has taken exception to that characterization. At a news conference this month, he said, “My job as governor is to ensure that I do everything possible to get Vermont back on its feet after what is undeniably the worst storm to hit this state.”
“If people want to criticize me for it, so be it,” Shumlin said. “But I’m doing the job I was elected to do, and I think this is certainly part of my job.”
Shumlin spokeswoman Susan Allen last week emphasized the point.
“These events are in no way campaign related — not in any way campaign related,” she said.
But the details of the governor’s tour — it includes 20-minute stops at events orchestrated by Shumlin’s staff in 22 towns — appeared first on the website of his re-election campaign, ShumlinForGovernor.com.
The Irene itinerary was posted to his campaign’s website by one of the taxpayer-funded government employees who helped organize the events. Drusilla Roessle, who serves as a constituent correspondent on the governor’s staff, used a personal email account to post the information to the website.
Allen said Roessle did so on her free time, as a volunteer for the Shumlin campaign.
Asked why, if the Irene tour isn’t a campaign event, it was posted on his campaign’s website, Allen said, “There sort of is no campaign at this point, so I don’t really know how to answer that.”
“We’ve added it to our official calendar as well,” Allen said. “We hadn’t realized it hadn’t gone on ours as well, so we uploaded it there, too.”
This window into preparations for the anniversary tour confirms the suspicions of some of Shumlin’s political adversaries. Rep. Jim Eckhardt, a Chittenden Republican whose district includes some of the towns hit hardest last year, said Shumlin’s trip “just reeks of politics.”
“This just seems opportunistic and political by nature, and I have heard that quite a few times from people around here,” Eckhardt said last week.
But Shumlin’s challenger isn’t above using symbols of Irene’s destruction as a stage for his own political theater.
In early August, Brock summoned members of the media to the empty parking lot of the Vermont State Hospital, the flooded-out shell of which he stood in front of as he railed against “fiscal mismanagement” by the Shumlin administration.
At issue specifically was the revelation from administration officials that FEMA funding would likely fall well short of what they thought it would be. Shumlin blamed the federal government.
Brock, meanwhile, aimed his fire at the incumbent.
“Gov. Shumlin has established an all-too-familiar pattern of saying, ‘Everything will be OK. Trust me. The funding will be there,’” Brock said Aug. 1.
Incumbents and challengers alike, political scientists say, will never let a good crisis go to waste.
Andrew Reeves, a national fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute and associate professor of political science at Boston University, has devoted some scholarly rigor to the impact of natural disasters on electoral dynamics. In an article titled “Make It Rain? Retrospection and the Attentive Electorate in the Context of Natural Disasters,” Reeves and his colleague John Gasper trace the role of disasters on presidential and gubernatorial elections from 1970 to 2006.
“Most research in psychology and political science suggests that voters are fairly myopic — they’re short-term thinkers,” Reeves said in a telephone interview last week. “And what we found, and what others have found, is that even though politicians don’t cause natural disasters, voters tend to hold politicians accountable for these things.”
That emotional response, however irrational, Reeves said, can hurt an incumbent’s popularity.
But he said politicians can quickly undo those negative effects and ride a successful disaster response to high favorability ratings.
“We have one paper where we show that when governors ask the president for federal aid, and the aid is granted, voters appear to be attuned to that and reward governors for getting the declaration,” Reeves said. “That’s the one-two punch: Voters don’t like politicians irrationally when natural disasters happen, but then do like them when politicians do something about it.”
That might be why, according to Reeves’ research, presidents are more likely to grant disaster declarations in battleground states.
It’s also why Shumlin is well served politically by using the anniversary of Irene to spotlight the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid that has gone and will continue to go toward disaster recovery.
“For those who did not suffer a direct loss, the most visible and salient issue is reconstruction of the road network,” says Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
And on that count, he says, “that’s definitely a positive for state government and for Gov. Shumlin.”
Shumlin’s campaign staff seems to think so, as well. The lead item on the front page of his campaign website has been featuring a picture of the smiling governor above a headline “Getting Tough Things Done.”
“Governor Shumlin was there for Vermonters after the biggest natural disaster to hit our state in eighty years,” his re-election website says. “He helped put Vermonters to work cleaning up, rebuilding over 500 miles of roads and 34 bridges for just a third of the estimated cost.”
Shumlin has taken some public hits for aspects of the storm response, notably river dredging that his own secretary of natural resources, Deb Markowitz, said exacted a serious toll on waterways’ health.
“But I think that by and large the voters of this state view the government’s response to this storm as a positive,” Davis says. “And since Peter Shumlin is the highest-profile figure of that government right now, it’s a positive for him in November.”
As Shumlin enjoys the free, mostly positive media attention that will likely accompany his Irene tour, Brock will lob grenades from the sidelines.
“I think it seems unseemly,” Brock said. “To me, there’s nothing to celebrate here, and there’s so much more to be done to deal with the effects of Irene. … I think the governor would be much better served if he used that time to, in light of reduced FEMA funding, focus on alternative plans for the office complex and state hospital.”
Shumlin has said his re-election campaign won’t begin until after Labor Day. And until then, Allen said, he’ll continue using the powers of his state office to help survivors of the disaster, which, in this case, means a flurry of 20-minute stops in towns still reeling from the effects of the flood.
“On Day 1, on Aug. 29 last year, the governor went down south to some of the hardest-hit areas and he told those people he’s going to stay with them all the way through this,” Allen said. “And this is the one-year mark, and he’s been following through.”