Politics and Public Opinion, Elections

Did Hurricane Sandy get Obama reelected?

President Obama visits the American Red Cross Digital Command Center following Hurricane Sandy. Image Credit: Dell Inc. (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

President Obama visits the American Red Cross Digital Command Center following Hurricane Sandy. Image Credit: Dell Inc. (Flickr) (CC BY 2.0)

The question of whether Hurricane Sandy cost Mitt Romney the presidency is a popular one. Obama supporters may be tempted to dismiss the argument, and I for one would like to believe that Americans voted based on fundamental values and issues rather than a transient natural disaster, but some exit poll data has me wondering.

The 2012 exit polls show that President Obama won the votes of those who decided whom to vote for in the last 3 days. He captured these late deciders by 6 points, 50-44. By comparison, he won voters who decided before the last few days by only 4 points, 51-47. If we dig into the data a little bit more, we see that Obama had a 5-point edge with those who decided “in the last few days” and a 7-point edge among those who decided “just today.”

 

Historically speaking, this is very odd. Late deciders tend to break toward the challenger, not the incumbent, as can be seen in the exit poll data below. (See the full 2004 data here and the full 1996 data here).

 

Click here for a primer on how to read the second chart.

What can explain the fact that President Obama bucked the historical trend of late deciders breaking for the challenger? While it’s certainly possible that something else could be the cause, it seems likely that Hurricane Sandy is responsible. We’ve never had a major natural disaster so close to Election Day, and there was no big political news—indeed, hardly any other news at all—during the final week of campaigning. There was no new information that these late deciders had to base their decision on other than the hurricane.

Further cementing the idea that Sandy played a big role in the campaign’s final week is this: Fully 15% of the electorate rated Obama’s hurricane response as the most important factor in their vote.

 

That’s a lot of people, and they broke heavily for Obama.

Now, there are some contradictions in the data. For example, 15% of people said that the hurricane response was the most important factor in their vote, but only 9% of people said they decided in the last few days. That implies that some people decided whom to vote for based on Obama’s response to a hurricane that hadn’t occurred yet.

Still, it’s clear that the hurricane response was an important issue to many people. Those who considered it important were heavily pro-Obama. The president captured the votes of those who decided in the last few days—right after the hurricane. To me, that points to one conclusion: Hurricane Sandy benefited President Obama’s reelection campaign.

Was Sandy solely responsible for pushing Obama over the top? Of course not. This campaign was decided by a myriad of factors. But despite the massive electoral college spread, the race was quite close. The fact that the storm came when it did was, as Chris Matthews noted, beneficial for the president, and at the very least it gave him a wider margin of victory than he would have otherwise. And if the storm had never come at all–or come a week later–those late deciders may have followed the historical norm and gone Romney.

4 thoughts on “Did Hurricane Sandy get Obama reelected?

  1. If people really were that influenced by the storm, I have to be even more frightened about the electorate than I already am.
    My interpretation, though, is that those who decided to vote for Obama (for whatever reason) had to give some rationale that wouldn’t sound silly, and the one at hand was Sandy. What were they going to say, “I was wavering but decided to vote of Obama because of how well the economy’s been doing the last four years?”

  2. “15% of people said that the hurricane response was the most important factor in their vote, but only 9% of people said they decided in the last few days. That implies that some people decided whom to vote for based on Obama’s response to a hurricane that hadn’t occurred yet.”

    It’s a bit murkier than that. The hurricane arrived the evening of 29th October. People who decided on 31st October – after the hurricane – would still fall into the “in October” group, which comprises 11%. So there may not be a mathematical contradiction after all.

    It should also be kept in mind that the hurricane factor was _not_ just a matter of Obama getting a chance to look Presidential. Romney had said he wanted to turn emergency response back to the states. Doubts about how well that would have worked if the philosophy had been in effect during Sandy would also cause a shift towards Obama.

    “There was no new information that these late deciders had to base their decision on other than the hurricane.”

    Not true. I can think of two things. In the last week, Romney released an ad about Jeep jobs going to China, and got slammed for the dishonesty. But how many people were influenced by this knock on his integrity is something I don’t know. Given that Romney had been roasted by the fact-checkers on earlier points, it might not have been that much.

    The piece of news with a bigger chance of influencing the election (IMO) was the October job creation report. Late deciders who took the report as signs of gradual but real improvement would be influenced towards Obama. Those who took the Romney position that it’s still not good enough were probably already in Romney’s pocket before then.

    • Good points, particularly re: the job report. My view on the jobs report was that it was neither particularly good nor particularly bad–probably a wash. If you thought the economy was improving before that report, you probably saw it as good news. If you thought the economy was doing poorly, you probably saw it as bad news.

      As for the Jeep ad, I don’t think it made much difference. You’re correct that Romney had been called out be fact-checkers and the like on dishonesty throughout the campaign, so I doubt one more example would seriously change things. You either thought he was a liar or you didn’t by that point.

      In any case, my intention here wasn’t to necessarily say that “Sandy caused Obama to get reelected.” Rather, it was to point out a contradiction in historical voting trends and to try to find an explanation. To me, Sandy is the most likely factor, though I could have explained more clearly why I don’t think the jobs report was a big factor.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. re: last minutes “deciders” making shallow judgments.

    If Romney was a strong, powerful candidate who appealed to a wider diversity than just white guys – he would
    have easily won no matter what “benefited” Obama in the last few days.

    For myself, as someone who has voted for Republicans before and wants the deficit and debt dealt with, I was extremely uncomfortable with Romney’s “plan” which simply did not add up. You can’t cut taxes, increase the DOD budget and balance the budget.

    The dog whistle politics and outright racist talk from folks on the right and not repudiated by Romney did not help.

    He came across as not having a backbone and not standing on principles.

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