How Hurricane Ian Could Affect Ron DeSantis’s Political Future
Hurricane Ian is a political story as well as one about people and weather. Hurricane Ian is the first major storm to hit the Sunshine State since Ron DeSantis was elected governor in 2018. 1 Therefore, it could be a watershed point in his term as governor. Important because DeSantis is up for reelection in a month and has been linked to a possible run for president in 2024.
He may have a compelling tale of leadership to tell on the campaign trail if Floridians and Americans are pleased with his handling of disaster recovery. However, if the response is poorly handled, it might also threaten his political career. Will DeSantis’s handling of Hurricane Ian help or hurt his political career? It’s too soon to tell, but governors like Ron DeSantis have had mixed political fortunes in the past.
I analysed the polling numbers of governors in the states severely hit by the 19 tropical cyclones that have inflicted over $10 billion2 in damage in the United States so far this century. After the storms, the average governor’s approval rating went up, but it was usually only a small bump. (Key disclaimer: it is hard to tell whether the storms directly caused those figures to move; other important events may have affected public opinion during that period, too.)
Some governors’ popularity increased after they effectively responded to storms that devastated their states. One way that former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie improved his reputation was by working across the aisle with former President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. That same year, polls conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University showed that Christie’s popularity rating among voters rose from 56% before the storm to 77% after.
When hurricanes Charley and Frances struck Florida, then-Governor Jeb Bush experienced an increase in his support rating from 45 percent to 62 percent, citing a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University. Less than a month separated their 2004 landfalls in Florida, and nearly nine in ten Floridians supported Bush’s recovery efforts after both storms.
However, many people’s views on their governors did not appear to shift after disasters, even when those people believed their governor had done a good job with disaster response. Consider North Carolina’s Governor Roy Cooper in the wake of Hurricane Florence in 2018. While 84% of registered voters told Climate Nexus thought Cooper’s response to Florence was “excellent” or “very good,” 53% of the public approved of him less than five months before the hurricane.
Governors who were seeking reelection before a cyclone hit their state have a mixed electoral record (the position DeSantis is in now). In October 2016, for instance, 71% of North Carolina voters were pleased with then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s handling of Hurricane Matthew. Head-to-head surveys pitting McCrory against his Democratic opponent Cooper showed an uptick for McCrory.
But the boost was temporary, and McCrory eventually lost the election again. In addition, in October of 2018, 61% of potential Florida voters approved of how Gov. Rick Scott handled the state’s response to Hurricane Michael. Term-limited Scott’s chances of being elected to the U.S. Senate dropped from 41% on the day Michael struck to 32% after two weeks, as predicted by FiveThirtyEight. But then, Scott pulled off a stunning victory and shocked everyone.
So, if past is prologue, Hurricane Ian might not have much of an impact on DeSantis’ approval rating (which was at a 50% tie in August, per the University of North Florida) or his prospects of being reelected (which, as of Sept. 28, were 93 in 100, per the FiveThirtyEight forecast). However, how DeSantis deals with the aftermath of the storm is crucial.
Voters, it seems, are largely logical people: Researchers in this area have found that voters give incumbents a boost if they take decisive action in the aftermath of a disaster (by, for example, providing relief funds) and a beating if they fail to do so (e.g., not issuing a disaster declaration). Observational evidence of this phenomenon exists in the physical world as well.
Those governors whose answers to the disasters were the least effective were often the ones who grew most unpopular as a result. The former governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, received heavy backlash for her handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many felt that she should have ordered an evacuation and asked for federal soldiers sooner.
— Chris Christie (@GovChristie) August 12, 2022
Blanco’s approval rating (according to SurveyUSA) dropped from 50% a couple weeks before the hurricane to 41% a couple weeks after — and continued to deteriorate in future months, all the way to 33% in December, as was the case with the state’s recovery from the storm. In Puerto Rico, very similar things occurred. Half of Puerto Ricans gave Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s reaction to Hurricane
Maria a “good” or “very good” rating six months after the disaster, and his approval rating was essentially unchanged from three months before the catastrophe. But a subsequent poll conducted a few months later gave him even more poor reviews: only 31% evaluated his response to Maria as “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.” This was despite the fact that infrastructure remained unrepaired and power outages endured.
A year later, Rosselló resigned in the face of protests that were provoked by his insulting Telegram messages (some of which were directed at victims of Hurricane Maria). As a result, DeSantis’s approach to the crisis may have a big impact on his popularity. But there’s a significant reason to believe it won’t: people have strong preconceived notions about him. According to the same UNF survey, 49% of probable voters had a favourable opinion of DeSantis while 41% had a negative one.
What this means is that few Floridians are willing to modify their thoughts about DeSantis, who has adopted a combative manner and actively participated in the culture wars. According to studies in political science, partisanship has a role in how the public views politicians in the aftermath of disasters, which may help to explain why their popularity ratings don’t fluctuate significantly.
When governments fail to adequately recover from a catastrophe, the public is more likely to blame lawmakers from the opposing party, according to one study. If something like this occurs in Florida, Democrats could point the finger at DeSantis, while Republicans might instead direct their ire towards Vice President Biden. Another study indicated that following natural catastrophes.
voters of the incumbent’s party tend to reward the incumbent while voters of the opposing party tend to punish them. That is to say, the voters’ preexisting party leanings were only reinforced by the catastrophic disaster. It’s not hard to picture DeSantis experiencing the same thing.