I would not be surprised if Mitt Romney was going through the weather forecast for November 6th, the date of the next US presidential election. As the Republican candidate, he will know that his chances of being elected are higher if people are faced with pouring rain upon leaving for the ballot box. Research supports this opinion but the underlying reasons could give the Obama campaign a strategy to undo this Republican rain advantage.
The media love covering election day weather under the assumption that it somehow matters for the political outcome. Is that true? Research by Brad Gomez and colleagues indeed supports this notion. They looked at all US presidential elections since 1948 and found that Republican candidates tended to benefit from rain and snow. In 1960 this effect may have helped Kennedy to win the election due to dry weather. Moreover, in 2000 it may have affected the infamous Florida vote in Bush’s favour due to higher than usual rain in many counties.
This effect is not spurious. It has recently been replicated in a completely different electoral system: the Netherlands. Rob Eisinga and colleagues have shown that various left parties benefit from dry election days and that various right or liberal parties benefit from pouring rain. The conservative advantage on rainy days seems to be real.
The rationality in weather effects
The usual reason given for this bizarre effect is a rational one. The story goes a bit like this. Bad weather increases the cost – i.e. effort or reluctance – of going to the polling booth. Such cost-considerations may not affect conservative voters that much because they are more politically committed, more used to working outdoors (farming) or have got a higher chance of owning a car. The typical left voter, on the other hand, could be imagined as being urban, without car, possibly old and, thus, unwilling to wait for the bus in the rain in order to get to the polling station.
Does this story work? Is the Republican rain advantage really due to people behaving like rational actors? The data don’t really support this story. Consider that every inch of rain above normal reduces the voter turn-out by only 0.9% whereas it changes the election outcome by 2.5%. Simple Democratic voter abstention cannot account for the full effect. Many voters must be influenced by the weather in terms of their actual voting decision – rather than just whether to vote or not.
The irrationality in weather effects
Given that the rational actor model fails a more sophisticated psychological theory is needed. The relation between mood and helping behaviour may be the key link between the weather and election outcomes. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the most persistent difference between right and left wing parties is captured in a ‘each for his own’ vs ‘help where help is needed’ dichotomy. Whether it comes to civil rights, health care or the tax system, right wing parties tend to favour individual responsibility and opportunity over collective responsibility and protection. The effect of the weather on voting decisions may be related to changing a feeling of responsibility for one another.
There is some suggestive evidence for this proposal. Psychological studies carried out by Matthew Keller and colleagues have shown that mood is positively influenced by going out and experiencing good weather (at least in the spring). Next, good mood is associated with more helping behaviour – clearly established in a review by Carlson and colleagues. So, a causal chain linking the weather to voting could look like this: weather –> mood –> helping.
One should not trust such causal chains too much without a direct test of the first cause affecting the last effect. Michael Cunningham has provided just that. He looked at helping behaviour through people’s readiness to participate in a lengthy questionnaire. People approached outside were more likely to stop to hear the experimenter’s request on a sunny day. Once stopped they were ready to answer more questions if the sun was out. Clearly, randomly chosen members of the public are more ready to help during good weather – as predicted by the causal chain ‘weather –> mood –> helping’. By changing voters’ readiness to provide concrete help the weather may also influence how people think the government should treat its citizens – whether to leave them alone or whether to assist them.
What can Obama do?
Given the role of the ‘mood –> helping’ effect in explaining the ‘weather –> vote’ effect, what strategy should the Obama administration adopt to counter-act the Republican rain advantage? Following this model, I suggest that they should emphasize health care and minority/women rights if key states are predicted to show good weather. Military successes like the bin Laden raid in Pakistan should be focussed on with bad weather. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, should catch up in the polls within the next few weeks and then pray for rain.
Carlson M, Charlin V, & Miller N (1988). Positive mood and helping behavior: a test of six hypotheses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 55 (2), 211-29 PMID: 3050025
Cunningham, M. (1979). Weather, mood, and helping behavior: Quasi experiments with the sunshine samaritan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (11), 1947-1956 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
Keller MC, Fredrickson BL, Ybarra O, Côté S, Johnson K, Mikels J, Conway A, & Wager T (2005). A warm heart and a clear head. The contingent effects of weather on mood and cognition. Psychological science, 16 (9), 724-31 PMID: 16137259
Eisinga R, Te Grotenhuis M, & Pelzer B (2012). Weather conditions and political party vote share in Dutch national parliament elections, 1971-2010. International journal of biometeorology, 56 (6), 1161-5 PMID: 22065127
Gomez, B., Hansford, T., & Krause, G. (2007). The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections The Journal of Politics, 69 (03), 649-663 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00565.x
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1) By Brian Rawson-Ketchum via Wikimedia Commons
2) By Fogster (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons