Why not Evaluate the Candidates on their Responses to Crises?

Frida Ghitis writes an odd column for CNN urging voters not to take Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath into consideration when casting a vote in the presidential election. As evidence for why such voting is wrongheaded, she offers examples of national leaders in Thailand, Japan, Peru, and Chile attracting a great deal of support during crises but then losing or resigning in disgrace later. This is supposed to suggest that the leaders we choose in a crisis are not necessarily those that are best for our country; they’re just particularly good at exploiting crises for political gain.

But all Ghitis has described here is a rally effect. Even a particularly corrupt leader can become popular during a crisis by virtue of the opposition declining to criticize him or her for a while. Later, when the country is trying to rebuild after the tragedy, there is usually plenty of fodder for criticism. Bridges are being rebuilt in some places rather than others. Certain construction companies and certain unions are being hired to do the building, and some aren’t. Some roads are getting repaired before others are. So criticism returns, and the leader doesn’t look as popular anymore. If the tragedy causes the nation’s economy to slip, or if it just slips on its own anyway, the leader will look even worse. On top of that, voters may ultimately blame a leader for an “act of God” like a storm or an earthquake. It’s not necessarily that the crisis caused voters to be swayed into voting for an incompetent or corrupt fool. It’s just that crises can cause short-term benefits and long-term headaches for leaders.

Beyond that, why dissuade voters from evaluating the candidates at a time like this? This is a moment when action by the federal government is (nearly) universally regarded as being necessary. Is it not appropriate to consider how the president is actually administering it? And what would be better to consider? Debate performance? Likability? “Vision”? I’d say that the economy would be important, and voters actually do consider that, but the president has a far greater direct impact on disaster relief than he does on economic growth.

One side point: Ghitis says that “voters must make a superhuman effort to not let the storm carry any more weight than it deserves in their judgment of politicians.” Why ask people to do something superhuman?

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.