Democrats hope rain, rain stays away

New research says bad weather can cut into Democrats’ voter turnout.  

Published November 3, 2006

WASHINGTON — As Republican strategists make last-minute preparations for Election Day, checking voter lists and calling supporters, they might want to consider an unorthodox tactic: a rain dance.

A new study of voter behavior confirms something political operatives have long suspected: rain hurts Democrats and helps Republicans. The study found that 1 inch of rain reduces overall turnout by slightly less than 1 percent and cuts the Democratic vote by 2.5 percentage points.

“Rain does have a significant effect decreasing the Democratic vote share,” said Brad Gomez, a visiting professor of political science at the University of Georgia who co-authored the study. “That’s a fairly sizeable swing.”

By analyzing weather and voting data since 1948, Gomez and his colleagues, Thomas Hansford and George Krause, calculated how many voters stayed home because of rain and snow.

During the especially rainy 1992 election, 666,000 voters stayed home, but Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency by such a large margin that it did not affect the outcome. By contrast, weather had virtually no effect on turnout in 1952 and 1980.

The more it rains, the more people stay home, the researchers found. But snow has a lower impact. One inch of snow reduces turnout by slightly less than 0.5 percent.

They determined that a few storms in the right locations could have changed the outcome of the 1960 presidential election. If there had been storms in the Northeast and the Midwest, Richard Nixon would have won instead of John Kennedy.

Their study, “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather Turnout and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections,” will appear in the Journal of Politics next year.

Campaign strategists have long believed that bad weather deterred Democratic voters more than Republicans. But until now, they didn’t know how much.

Why are Democrats affected more? Political operatives believe it’s a matter of demographics. Democratic voters tend to be poorer than Republicans and may not have cars to drive to the polls. Those voters, the theory goes, would be more likely to stay home in bad weather.

Another explanation is that Democrats are more likely to be what political scientists call “peripheral voters,” people casually interested in politics who don’t feel compelled to vote in every election.

Their decision about voting is more likely to be influenced by outside factors such as rain.

Gomez was inspired to conduct the study after watching Today Show weatherman Al Roker predict that stormy weather would have an impact on turnout. He wondered how Roker could make such a claim.

Gomez and his colleagues compiled voting data and weather reports for more than 3,000 U.S. counties for presidential elections from 1948 to 2000. Using a sophisticated analysis of precipitation, historical turnout and factors that affect voting, they calculated how much the turnout was influenced by rain or snow.

To compensate for voters accustomed to rainy or snowy weather in their hometowns (they theorized that residents in soggy Seattle would cope with rain better than people in a dry city such as Phoenix), the researchers factored in normal precipitation for election day.

They studied only presidential elections, so it’s not clear how well the results apply to a mid term election like the one Tuesday. The impact of weather could be different because midterm elections draw fewer peripheral voters.

Democratic strategists acknowledge that their party is more affected by bad weather but say they boost their turnout efforts by giving out rain ponchos or adding more vans to give voters a ride to the polls.

The party’s biggest weather fanatic is Donna Brazile, the manager of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. With the election just three days away, Brazile has been watching the Weather Channel and checking Web sites to see where the storms will be.

Other Democratic operatives simply look at the forecasts, but Brazile analyzes the jet stream and tracks storm systems hundreds of miles away.

Friday night, she was hopeful because of a high pressure system over the Ohio Valley. She said it would keep storms away from important states such as Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“I would say right now the weather forecast favors Democrats.’’

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0575.