Hurricane Matthew and the Presidential Election

October 6, 2016 10:06 a.m.

All attention now is rightly focused on getting people to evacuate, prepare for and survive Hurricane Matthew – which by various measures is predicted to be one of the worst storms to hit Florida in recorded history. (If you’re there, you don’t need me to tell you. But if they’re telling you to leave, LEAVE!) But the political consequences could also be significant. Florida is always a critical state. (At the moment the PollTracker Average has Clinton ahead by 5.7 percentage points – not terribly close. But that could and likely will change.) And the election is only about 30 days away.

The storm appears set to hit the state’s Democratic heartland in coastal South Florida. Of course, there are Democrats and Republicans throughout the state. But the state’s Democratic votes are concentrated into highly populous counties on the southern coastal strip in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. That’s exactly where Matthew appears likely to hit.

Here’s the 2012 Florida electoral map.

The expected impact is expected be around Palm Beach. On the electoral map, that’s the one furtherest north of those three big blue counties at the southern tip of the state.

Here is a slightly out of date (about 24 hours) map of the impact zone.

Here’s the most recent map from the National Hurricane Service …

Political geography is complex and storm paths are not wholly predictable. But the basic story is pretty clear. The greatest damage appears likely to be in heavily Democratic parts of the state – not just counties that show up as blue but heavily populous counties where millions of votes are concentrated. The aftermath of a Hurricane like this leaves many people displaced. For those who remain in their homes or return quickly there are days or weeks without electricity. Of course, homes get destroyed, infrastructure gets destroyed. It’s not hard to imagine an event so close to an election could have a significant impact on turnout in the most affected areas. Even in areas where infrastructure and voting places are up and running, putting your life back together has distract some people from voting.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York City on October 29th, 2012, exactly a week before election day. I remember this pretty vividly since my apartment and TPM’s offices in Lower Manhattan were both without electricity for almost a week. But of course the areas most seriously affected by Sandy (mainly in New Jersey and New York) weren’t in closely contested states. So it was never really an issue in terms of the outcome of the presidential election.

With lives and livelihoods under threat right now, I don’t want to and there’s really no point speculating any more than I have here. My point is simply to flag this as a potential issue. If the race turns out not to be that close, the storm will likely have no electoral impact. But Florida is usually within a point or two in the final result. It’s not at all hard to imagine that in a tight race, a drop off in turn out in the affected areas could shift the outcome of the race. So Matthew could have a political impact not just in Florida but for the whole country long after the physical damage is repaired.

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