© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Swing States Get More Disaster Declarations — Especially Before Elections


Now let's hear about one important role for any president - dealing with an emergency. Presidents have to decide whether to declare a federal disaster after a hurricane or other calamity. In an episode of the HBO TV series "Veep," the president and vice president cook up a bogus declaration. They try to persuade North Carolina's governor to play along, letting the president send aid and look like a hero.


JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Governor, it pains me to say this. I think we're going to have to ground flights, despite your opinion on this matter.

HUGH LAURIE: (As Tom James) Cecile, if a state of emergency were requested, that could be sweetened by a light dusting of federal funds.

CAROLYN MIGNINI: (As Governor Cecile) OK, I've decided to request a state of emergency.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Thank you, Governor.

GREENE: OK, cynical TV version, but maybe not all that far from reality. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke to NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam about new research into a link between elections and presidential disaster relief.


Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: What's the link?

VEDANTAM: Well, lots of researchers have tried to analyze how and whether politics plays a role in presidential disaster declaration, Steve. A few years ago, Andrew Reeves at Boston University found that the electoral competitiveness of states was related to the likelihood of disaster declarations.


VEDANTAM: So between 1981 and 2004, he finds that states that are highly competitive in terms of politics are twice as likely to get presidential disaster declarations than noncompetitive states.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. We just got this hypothetical example from "Veep." It's the governor of North Carolina. I guess that's realistic. It's a swing state. There you go.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I guess "Veep" is actually presenting accurate social science research, Steve. There's also new work by James Ming Chen at Michigan State University that actually looks at the timing of these declarations. He analyzes the propensity of presidents since 1953 to declare these federal disasters. Now, he finds there's an increase in such declarations before presidential elections, but where the data as dramatic is what happens after a presidential election. There's a dramatic decline in federal disaster declarations after a presidential election, which suggests that political incentives are at least partly at play in these announcements.

INSKEEP: So I guess the lesson here is don't experience a disaster right after a presidential election?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I think that would be a takeaway message, Steve. It might be hard to tell the hurricanes to follow our personal political cycles.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam who's never a disaster. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. Follow him on Twitter - @hiddenbrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.