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Will Florida's hurricanes really impact the presidential election?

12:00 AM, Sep 21, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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CHARLEY CAME IN AUGUST, smacking the Florida coast with high winds and torrential rain and a surge of water several stories high. He was followed soon after by Frances, who was about 500 miles across the waist, who tore through the tiny island of Grenada before setting her eye on the United States, and who left damages, which, when added to Charley's, cost around $11 billion. Charley and Frances were hurricanes, of course, and they weren't the only ones that hit Florida in the last month. There was Ivan, too, who followed Charley and Frances, and who left damages of his own. An additional $3 billion of them, in fact.

Florida, it is safe to say, has had a rough month. And there could be more to come. Click over to the Weather Channel, and you'll probably come across a grim meteorologist looking warily at the latest blip on his radar screen. Formally, the 2004 hurricane season will last until November 30. It is not impossible for a hurricane to coalesce afterwards, just unlikely. If one does, however, it will probably be viewed as an afterthought, because the most important date this hurricane season occurs a month earlier. That date is November 2, when Floridians will go to the polls and elect the next president.

The idea that hurricanes have a political impact, uttered almost nightly on cable talk shows, has become a cliché. It is also untrue. The only purported example of meteorological disaster affecting an election is Hurricane Andrew in 1992--and Andrew didn't actually affect that race's outcome. The incumbent, President George H.W. Bush, still won Florida that year, and still lost the election to Bill Clinton. Still, in 1992 Florida's Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, pilloried Bush 41 for his lackadaisical "concern" for the hurricane's victims, the speed with which his government flooded Florida with emergency relief spending, and generally being "out of touch." CNN's William Schneider says that, as a result of Andrew, the elder Bush's support in the state plummeted 20 points from where it had stood in 1988. But this is unlikely. Hurricane Andrew hit Florida on August 24, 1992. That September, a CBS/New York Times poll found that 61 percent of respondents approved of the way Bush handled Andrew. (A more likely explanation for the erosion in Bush's support, incidentally, is Ross Perot. Remember: George H.W. Bush saw a 20 point drop in support from 1988 to 1992. Perot's share of the Florida vote in 1992, according to the Gallup poll--20 percent.)

Compare 1992 with 2004. The current president has gone out of his way to ward off criticisms that he is out of touch. He has visited Florida three times since August 15, a few days after Charley hit the coast. More visits are planned. Last week Bush asked Congress for $3.1 billion in federal disaster relief. And there isn't a Democratic governor in the state to criticize him. Instead the governor is his brother. A Gallup poll from late August showed 71 percent of adult Floridians approved of the way Bush handled the hurricanes' aftermath. However, there was one downside for the president: Because of storm coverage, Florida's major media markets, places like Orlando and Miami, did not broadcast his September 2 acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention in New York.

For John Kerry, Florida's hurricane season has been more problematic. He has cancelled several visits and rallies in the state, his paid television advertisements are not receiving much attention, and his campaign is caught in a trap. If Kerry visited Florida too soon after a storm, Republicans would accuse him of being a press hound, or, worse, exploiting the suffering of others. But if he avoids setting foot in the state, Republicans will say he doesn't care about the average Floridian. So Kerry has been adrift, issuing press releases and emails that express his concern. "These are lost days for the Kerry campaign," Tom Fiedler, the executive editor of the Miami Herald, told CNBC recently.

One of Kerry's pollsters agrees. "It's been very, very difficult down there," Tom Kiley said during a conference call with reporters on Friday, "both because the public is so preoccupied with the hurricanes and because of the practical matter: So many Floridians have not been home, or if they have been home, they haven't been accessible because of electricity and other problems." And Kiley is not alone. Both Republican and Democratic pollsters believe that, until the hurricanes subside, it will be nearly impossible to get a clear sense of the race there.

The result? A political standstill in the state that will most likely decide the presidential election. Again.

Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.