Hurricane Ian is human, meteorological, and political. Ian is the first hurricane to hit Florida since Ron DeSantis took office. It could define his governorship.
DeSantis is up for reelection in a month and has 2024 presidential aspirations. If Floridians and Americans approve of his storm recovery, he'll have a strong leadership story on the campaign trail. If he botches the response, it could harm his political career. Will DeSantis' response to Hurricane Ian boost or derail his career?
It's too soon to tell, but governors like DeSantis have had mixed political fortunes. I looked at the 19 tropical cyclones that caused over $10 billion2 in damage in the U.S. this century and how their governors' polling numbers changed after the storms. After storms, the average governor's approval rating rose slightly. (It's impossible to know if the storms caused the shift in public opinion; other events may have played a role.)
After responding to a storm, some governors gained popularity. After Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, then-Gov. Chris Christie boosted his image by working with then-President Barack Obama. Fairleigh Dickinson University polled that year and found Christie's approval rating rose from 56% to 77%. After hurricanes, Charley and Frances hit Florida, then-Gov. Jeb Bush's approval rating rose from 45% to 62%. Both storms hit Florida in 2004, and 87% of voters approved Bush's recovery efforts.
Storms rarely changed people's opinions of their governors, even when they thought their governor did a good job with disaster response. Consider Roy Cooper after Hurricane Florence in 2018. 84% of registered voters said Cooper's response to Florence was "good" or "very good," but SurveyUSA found his approval rating rose from 49% before the storm to 53% after it.
Governors are running for reelection when a hurricane hits and have a mixed record (the position DeSantis is in now). In October 2016, 71% of likely North Carolina voters approved of Pat McCrory's hurricane response. McCrory's head-to-head polls against Cooper improved. Shortly after, McCrory lost reelection. In October 2018, 61% of likely Florida voters approved of Gov. Rick Scott's hurricane response. Term-limited Scott's chance of winning the U.S. Senate dropped from 41 in 100 on the day Michael hit to 32 in 100 two weeks later. Scott unexpectedly won the race.
If history is any guide, Hurricane Ian may not affect DeSantis' approval rating (which was 50 percent in August, per UNF) or reelection chances (as of Sept. 28) were 93 in 100, per the FiveThirtyEight forecast). DeSantis' storm response will be crucial. Voters are rational: Voters reward incumbents for proactive disaster responses (e.g., delivering relief funds) and punish them for inadequate ones, say political scientists (e.g., not issuing a disaster declaration).
Real-world examples exist. Unpopular governors often had ineffective hurricane responses. Kathleen Blanco was criticized for responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, especially for waiting too long to order an evacuation and request federal troops. The state's recovery from the storm was slow and painful, and Blanco's approval rating (per SurveyUSA) fell from 50% before the storm to 41% after — and continued to decline in subsequent months, to 33% in December.
Puerto Rico was similar. Six months after Hurricane Maria, 50% of Puerto Ricans rated Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's response as "good" or "very good," about the same as it had been three months before. In a different poll conducted a few months later, only 31% rated his response to Maria as "excellent," "very good," or "good." Rosselló resigned a year later amid protests over his offensive Telegram messages (some about Maria victims) and general discontent with his administration.
DeSantis' disaster response could affect his popularity. The public's opinion of him is already set. According to a UNF poll, 45% of likely voters approved DeSantis, and 41% strongly disapproved. DeSantis' pugnacious style and embrace of the culture wars may have turned off Floridians.
Political science research shows that partisanship affects how people perceive politicians after natural disasters, which could explain why their polling numbers don't change much. One study found that people blame opposing party politicians when hurricane recovery efforts fail. If this happens in Florida, Democrats may blame DeSantis, but Republicans may blame Biden. Another study found that incumbent party voters reward them after natural disasters while opposing party voters punish them. The disaster confirmed voters' partisanship. DeSantis could easily follow suit.