- 9.36.1 MYTH: The state-by-state winner-take-all rule minimizes the effects of hurricanes and bad weather.
9.36.1 MYTH: The state-by-state winner-take-all rule minimizes the effects of hurricanes and bad weather.
- Under the current state-by-state winner-take-all rule, a small difference in turnout (caused by bad weather or any other factor) in one part of a closely divided battleground state can potentially switch the electoral-vote outcome in that state (and hence the national outcome of the presidential election). In contrast, a localized reduction in turnout is unlikely to materially affect the outcome of a nationwide vote for President.
- Bad weather regularly affects the outcome of elections—both state and federal. A study of past weather conditions indicates that bad weather reversed the statewide outcome for President in Florida in 2000 (and hence the national outcome).
- Neither the National Popular Vote compact nor the winner-take-all rule can do anything about the weather; however, a national popular vote for President would reduce the likelihood that bad weather could reverse the outcome of a presidential election.
It is often said that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Neither the National Popular Vote compact nor the winner-take-all rule can do anything about the weather. However, a national popular vote would reduce the likelihood that bad weather could actually change the overall outcome of a presidential election.
Thaddeus Dobracki has stated that the current state-by-state winner-take-all method of electing the President:
“negates the effect of exceptionally high or low turn-out in a state by giving the state a fix[ed] number of electors. For example, if bad weather, such as a hurricane, were to hit North Carolina, then instead of losing influence because of a low turnout, that state would still get its normal allocation of Electoral College votes.”
The state-by-state winner-take-all rule does indeed ensure that a state affected by turnout-depressing weather (such as a hurricane) will nonetheless cast its full number of electoral votes in the Electoral College. However, the winner-take-all rule can result in those electoral votes being cast in a way that is unrepresentative of normal voter sentiment in the state.
Under the current state-by-state winner-take-all rule, a small difference in turnout (caused by bad weather or any other factor) in one part of a closely divided battleground state can potentially reverse the electoral-vote outcome in that state (and hence the national outcome of the presidential election). In contrast, a localized reduction in turnout is unlikely to materially affect the outcome of a nationwide vote for President.
Bad weather regularly affects the outcome of both state and federal elections.
John F. Kennedy might have received a far larger majority of the popular vote in the then-battleground states of Illinois and Michigan had the weather been better in Detroit and Chicago on Election Day in 1960. Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President 1968:
“The weather was clear all across Massachusetts and New England, perfect for voting as far as the crest of the Alleghenies. But from Michigan through Illinois and the Northern Plains states it was cloudy: rain in Detroit and Chicago, light snow falling in some states on the approaches of the Rockies.” [Emphasis added]
Similarly, bad weather in upstate New York, downstate Illinois, western Michigan, and southern Ohio frequently affects which candidate carries the state in a federal or state election.
A turnout-depressing weather event on North Carolina’s hurricane-prone coast would adversely affect the Republican Party under the winner-take-all rule if it occurred on Election Day. North Carolina was a closely divided battleground state in 2008 and 2012. The disposition of all of North Carolina’s electoral votes was decided in 2008 by President Obama’s statewide plurality of only 14,177. Table 9.46 .HURRICANE shows that 14 of the 17 counties on North Carolina’s Atlantic coast voted heavily Republican in the 2008 presidential election. As can been seen from the table, John McCain built up a net 43,433-vote margin from the state’s 17 coastal counties. Thus, a hurricane hitting North Carolina’s coast (causing disruption and evacuations) could easily shift the state’s potentially critical 15 electoral votes from one party to the other (potentially resulting in the state’s electoral votes being cast in a way that is unrepresentative of voter sentiment in the state).
Figure 9.46 Vote of North Carolina in 17 coastal counties in 2008
There was considerable speculation that Hurricane Sandy (which made landfall in Pennsylvania a week before the November 6, 2012, presidential election) might reduce voter turnout in the heavily Democratic city of Philadelphia (in the eastern part of the state). In contrast, the Republican central part of the state (often called the “T” area) is much farther from the Atlantic Ocean. Lower turnout in Philadelphia had the potential of flipping the statewide plurality from Democrat Barack Obama to Republican Mitt Romney (and thereby flipping the state’s 20 potentially critical electoral votes). Such an outcome would not have been reflective of normal voter sentiment in Pennsylvania as indicated by virtually every statewide poll before Election Day in 2012 and the fact that the Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in every presidential election since 1992.
In a state such as Florida, the political effect of a hurricane would depend on the location of the hurricane’s landfall.
Tampa is in Hillsborough County on the state’s west coast. Tampa was the site of the 2012 Republican National Convention. That convention was, in fact, disrupted by a hurricane (Issac) that only minimally impacted Florida’s southeastern coast. In the November 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush received 180,794 votes in Hillsborough County to Al Gore’s 169,576 votes—giving Bush a county-wide margin of 11,218 votes. In 2000, Bush won Florida by 537 votes out of 5,963,110 votes. If a hurricane had even slightly depressed turnout in Hillsborough County on Election Day in November 2000, 100% of Florida’s electoral votes would have gone to Al Gore (giving Al Gore all of Florida’s 25 electoral votes and making him President).
Conversely, if bad weather were to depress turnout in heavily Democratic counties (such as Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach) in southeastern Florida, the Republicans would benefit.
There is evidence that the weather has affected the outcome of presidential elections under the current state-by-state winner-take-all system. For example, an article entitled “The Weather and the Election” from the Oklahoma Weather Lab at the University of Oklahoma commented on a 2007 county-by-county study of the weather in the Journal of Politics:
“Gomez et al. collected meteorological data recorded at weather stations across the lower 48 United States for presidential election days between 1948 and 2000, and interpolated these data to get rain and snowfall totals for each election day for each county in the entire nation. They then compared the rain and snowfall data with voter turnout for each county, and performed statistical regressions to determine whether or not rain and snow (bad weather) had a negative impact on voter turnout.
“What they found was that each inch of rain experienced on election day drove down voter turnout by an average of just under 1%, while each inch of snow knocked 0.5% off turnout. Though the effect of snow is less on a ‘per inch’ basis, since multiple-inch snowfall totals are far more common than multiple-inch rainfall events, we can conclude that snow is likely to have a bigger negative impact on voter turnout.
“Furthermore, Gomez et al. noted that when bad weather did suppress voter turnout, it tended to do so in favor of the Republican candidate, to the tune of around 2.5% for each inch of rainfall above normal. In fact, when they simulated the 14 presidential elections between 1948 and 2000 with sunny conditions nationwide, they found two instances in which bad weather likely changed the electoral college outcome—once in North Carolina in 1992, and once in Florida in 2000. The latter change is particularly notable, as it would have resulted in Al Gore rather than George Bush winning the presidential election that year.”, [Emphasis added]
Fortunately, Hurricane Sandy did not hit the northeast on Election Day. Instead, it arrived a week before Election Day. This is a reminder that a convergence of unlikely events would be needed to materially affect a presidential election, namely the unlikely event of a major hurricane combined with the unlikely event of a major hurricane on Election Day.
What can be said about Hurricane Sandy is that it probably impacted the 2012 presidential election in terms of its effect on political discourse in the week prior to Election Day. As former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (R) said:
“The hurricane is what broke Romney’s momentum. I don't think there’s any question about it. Any day that the news media is not talking about jobs and the economy, taxes and spending, deficit and debt, ‘ObamaCare’ and energy, is a good day for Barack Obama.”
Note that the potential effects of bad weather on elections are decreasing from year to year because of the increasing use of mail-in voting, absentee voting, and early voting. In 2012, 100% of the voting was done by mail in Washington state and Oregon. In numerous states, a substantial fraction of a state’s vote now comes from absentee voting and early voting. In California, for example, 51% of the vote in the November 2012 presidential election was cast by mail.
Nonetheless, the fact that a hurricane (such as Sandy) could hit on Election Day is a reminder that weather can, and does, affect the outcome of elections.
 Dobracki, Thaddeus. The Morning Call. September 21, 2012. http://discussions.mcall.com/20/allnews/mc-electoral-college-madonna-young-yv--20120920/10?page=2.
 White, Theodore H. 1969. The Making of the President 1968. New York, NY: Atheneum Publishers. Page 7.
 The weather and the election. 2008. Oklahoma Weather Lab at the University of Oklahoma. http://hoot.metr.ou.edu/archive/story&docId=21. See also http://www.thorntonweather.com/blog/local-news/will-the-weather-determine-the-next-president/. See section 9.31.13 for a quotation from the Gomez article from the August 2007 issue of Journal of Politics.
 Brad T. Gomez, Brad T.; Hansford, Thomas G.; and Krause, George A. 2007. The Republicans should pray for rain: weather, turnout, and voting in U.S. Presidential Elections. The Journal of Politics. Volume 69, number 3. August 2007. Pages 649–663.
 Herb, Jeremy. Former Gov. Barbour: Hurricane Sandy broke Romney’s momentum. The Hill. November 4, 2012.