Disasters Can Be Good for You

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 26 2011 5:57 PM

Disasters Can Be Good for You

They don't want to talk about it, so I will: Natural disasters can be good for politicians. For every New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who melts down under the pressure of dealing with Hurricane Katrina, there is a Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who stays frosty and works his White House connections to get more and more federal aid. There's an Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, who goes from being locked in a primary with Roy "Ten Commandments" Moore to basking in credit and sympathy and making his opponent totally irrelevent.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

How does this work? If the governor or mayor or whoever in charge of disaster response is not incompetent, he gets to become the most visible figure in the state/city until the crisis is over. He gives commands. He shows up, khaki-clad, to disaster centers. He's the voice of authority. Just as importantly, there's no other news about his political opponents. In 2004, George W. Bush surged in Florida polls because the state was battered by four hurricanes that made Jeb Bush into a temporary warrior-king with a 2-1 approval/disapproval rating.

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There aren't many elections happening on the east coast soon, but here's who stands to win if he doesn't completely screw up this weekend, in descending order of helpfulness.

Chris Christie. The governor of New Jersey's been slipping a little in polls, and in some of them, his approval rating's underwater. This isn't an ideal place to be two months and a week for state legislative elections. Christie performs well, and he's in a better position to help his Republicans gain in the state Assembly and Senate.

Bob McDonnell. We rank him a little lower than Christie because he's popular enough already; he was in a good position to help Republicans win the State Senate this year even before the earthquake, before the hurricane. So a good weekend is gravy for him -- he's got a chance to become so popular that he starts appearing next to Marco Rubio in the slow-news-day vice presidential nomination lists.

Bev Perdue. The first female governor of North Carolina's got the state that will probably reel the most from Irene. It comes as she's been rebuilding, slowly and not-so-surely, from her first horrific two years in office. I haven't seen any poll that has her beating former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory in a rematch. She pulls this off, and maybe she gets that poll.

Martin O'Malley. The governor of Maryland, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, relishes every chance to blast Chris Christie as a puffed-up (by the media!) showboat. He doesn't want to bobble this.

Jack Markell. Yeah, him too. The governor of Delaware doesn't want to wane in comparison to Christie either.

Bob Turner. The GOP's candidate in NY-9 (the special election for Anthony Weiner's seat) won't get any obvious chance to put on an orange vest or tour devastation. There had just been a couple of signs that his campaign had peaked, after he opposed part of the 9/11 first responders' aid bill and after a Republican member of the city council endorsed his Democratic opponent, David Weprin. This crisis freezes the race for a couple of days; Weprin's robocalls about the aid bill are a little less pertinent.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.