Bryan Caplan  

Political Scapegoating: How Farmer-Voters Respond to Bad Weather

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Punishing politicians for bad weather seems like the height of illogic. But punishing politicians for responding poorly to bad weather makes perfect sense. The governor of Louisiana doesn't create hurricanes, but he can deal with a hurricane well or poorly. The upshot is that rational voters will punish politicians who respond worse than average to bad weather, and actually reward politicians who respond better than average to bad weather.

What does the data say? An excellent working paper by Andrew Healy once again finds that (1) voters do not measure up to simple benchmarks of rationality, and (2) less educated voters are especially irrational:

State-level presidential election returns show that a moderate drought has cost the incumbent party about 1.3 percent of the vote in farm states, with no significant effect in non-farm states. Individual-level voter survey data shows that a moderate drought has, on average, cost the incumbent party about 2.6 percent of the vote in rural areas in all states.

[...]

Voters with low levels of education are 2.66% more likely to switch away from the incumbent party after a moderate drought, a significant effect. In contrast, voters with high levels of education are only 1.41% more likely to switch and the effect is insignificant.

Healy's paper reminds me of a issue I've often puzzled over. Remember Yeltsin's single-digit approval ratings from the 90's? How much of that reflected his unusually poor handling of Russia's problems? And how much of it reflected the unusually severe problems that Russia faced? Frankly, despite all his mistakes, I doubt that anyone in Yeltsin's position could have been very popular. As far as the Russian people were concerned, the very best possible wouldn't have been good enough.

P.S. There are more neat papers where this one came from.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
TGGP writes:

Plenty of people still hate Yeltsin and find Putin much better in comparison.

Morgan writes:

GIGO.
Multiple Regression Analysis is destroying Economics. So many otherwise intelligent people waste so much time and energy creating bad models with bad data on useless subjects that do nothing except support previously held opinions. It's like they think its magic. Gather whatever crappy data you can get your hands on, wave your magic formula, and PRESTO! out comes our previously held opinion. There is no intellectual discipline.

dWj writes:

Ask anyone who lived in Chicago in 1979 who Mayor Bilandic was, and why the city responds so quickly to blizzards these days.

Wes Johnson writes:

Morgan you are so right. At best this guy found a weak correlation between weather and votes for incumbents. But considering that there are millions of different facts that you could search for correlations with voting patterns, so what?

The author, and I guess Caplan since he cites it as excellent, jumps right to the conclusion that some set of voters must actually believe that politicians control the weather. That fits the theory that voters aren't "rational."

8 writes:

The conclusion is that some people blame whoever is in office for whatever problem is occuring at the time, whether or not they had anything to do with it.

Wes Johnson writes:
The conclusion is that some people blame whoever is in office for whatever problem is occuring at the time, whether or not they had anything to do with it.

I would have to say that the conclusion of the article is much more specific than that. Some small percentage (2.6% I think it was, but only in rural areas) are specifically said to have blamed incumbent politicians for the bad weather that had occurred since the last election.


That's pretty weak tea. It is much more likely that the author has "uncovered" a random correlation, nothing more.

Wes Johnson writes:

And another thing:

If its true that "State-level presidential election returns show that a moderate drought has cost the incumbent party about 1.3 percent of the vote in farm states," doesn't that mean that 98.7% of voters are rational, at least with respect to this issue?

It doesn't seem true that "voters do not measure up to simple benchmarks of rationality," even if the study is taken at face value. The vast majority do measure up, right?

Morgan writes:

One might even suspect that the poorer people who suffer the most in bad times might be more willing to try something different, anything different. If the status quo isn't working for you, as in you are starving and lost your home, is it not rational to try something new? The 1-2% of the people may in fact be motivated by extremely rational analysis, including promises made by challengers that specifically appeal to those hit hardest by the last natural disaster. "I promise to provide low-cost guaranteed loans to those who lost their homes in the last drought...."

The study doesn't know, and what irks me, pretends to know with statistical certainty facts which are outside its scope. That is poor economics.

Zach writes:

Morgan, your last post offers a fair explanation of the results - very interesting. However, your explanation doesn't discredit the statistical evidence presented in the paper, only provides an alternative explanation. Papers like this are not, as you say, on useless subjects. They generate discussions regarding the underlying dynamics of what we are observing and can learn more about human nature and what drives decision-making.

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