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Right Now | Flooding the Ballot Box

The Politics of Disaster

March-April 2004

When a natural disaster strikes in the United States, only the president has the power to declare the site a federal disaster area, making it eligible for a variety of assistance. In such apparently nonpolitical situations, presidents theoretically have a fair, if personal, standard by which to determine whether to issue the necessary declaration.

But an analysis of 10 years (1989-1999) of such decisions by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton shows that, at least in marginal disasters, the size of the state (in terms of electoral votes) and whether the political parties view it as "competitive" matters quite a bit. In 1994, for example, Bill Clinton turned down a request by Illinois governor James Edgar for help with floods on Chicago's South Side that caused $6.7 million in damage. The 1992 Clinton campaign had declared Illinois Republican territory. A year later, Clinton did declare a disaster in response to New Orleans floods that caused $10 million in damage; Clinton's strategists considered Louisiana a pivotal state.

"An uncompetitive state with three electoral votes is 50 percent less likely to receive a disaster declaration than a competitive state with 20 electoral votes," says Andrew Reeves, a doctoral candidate in the department of government. "The best predictor of a presidential disaster declaration, bar none, is actual need. The question arises in these marginal cases, when it's unclear whether to give or not." Marginal disasters include events like the 1994 "deep freeze" in Michigan, which garnered less than $6 million in aid.

In his paper-in-progress, "Political Disaster? Electoral Politics and Presidential Disaster Declarations," Reeves draws on research about disaster declarations by economists Thomas A. Garrett (of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis) and Russell S. Sobel (of the College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University), as well as statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He combines these with data on whether political parties view particular states as "friends," "enemies," or "competitive," based on their likelihood of voting for the party's presidential candidate.

In the decade under study, there were 659 presidential disaster declarations. Every state had at least one, but Texas was such an extreme disaster area in 1996 and 1998, with a combined total of 89 disasters, that Reeves excluded Texas data for those years and eventually examined a total of 570 cases. All but four of the disasters analyzed were due to extreme weather, including fires. (President Bush declared a disaster in 1992 in response to the Los Angeles riots sparked by the Rodney King beating, and in 1994 President Clinton declared disasters for the salmon industry in Washington, Oregon, and California.)

Emergency aid, it turns out, is an easy-to-use political tool at the president's disposal. When an emergency hits, the governor of the affected state can request a disaster declaration, which the president may accept or deny. (In the decade studied, 17 percent of the requests, "generally minor weather events," were turned down, Reeves says.) When the requests are accepted, FEMA, not the president, decides how much money to allocate. The average grant for the 570 disasters (not including those in Texas) was $36.4 million. Outlays ranged from $6,301 (Montana, 1999) to $7 billion (California, 1994).

During his four years in office, President George H.W. Bush averaged 39 disaster declarations annually. The seven years of the Clinton presidency that Reeves studied averaged 72 disasters per year. When he focused on the presidential election years of 1992 and 1996, Reeves found that "President Clinton was about 60 percent more likely than President Bush to declare a disaster in a pivotal, electorally important state."

Large, friendly states appear to be more important in the equation than large, unfriendly states. "Even if California's 54 electoral votes are virtually assured to a candidate, he will most likely be more protective of a lead here," Reeves writes. Yet, presidents tend to give more to small-state "enemies" than small-state "friends." Reeves explains that the positive public-relations impact of disaster relief may worry political opponents, perhaps forcing them to spend money in a state they had previously considered friendly. On the other hand, spending the money in a small, friendly state may be a waste of political capital.

Though there may be many reasons why small, uncompetitive states receive less money — including, perhaps, the fact that they expect less and so don't even apply — the political ramifications stand out to Reeves. "My results show that in these (marginal) cases, small, non-competitive states receive less help because they are just not that important in terms of an election," he says. "If a major tornado runs through the state, they will get aid. But if it's something marginal — a flood, or a windstorm that doesn't cause as much damage — I think those states should be a little irritated."


Andrew Reeves e-mail address:
Website for Reeves paper: