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.