Climate Extremes: Weather's Role at the Polls

By Jillian MacMath, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
October 8, 2012; 6:04 AM ET
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More factors into the result of an election than just politics, said Dr. Michael Berkman, Professor of Political Science at Penn State University.

Weather can play a game-changing role in voter turn out at the polls.

"So when we're thinking about voter turn out, what we're considering is what kinds of costs are imposed on people, in terms of showing up at the polls," Berkman said.

"Some people are much more responsive to higher costs of different types, whether they be information costs, getting to the polls, traveling a distance, there are a variety of ways of thinking about it. Weather imposes a cost."

In rural areas, the cost may be having to drive a long distance in poor weather, and in an urban area, you may have to stand out in the rain.

"To some people, to a really committed voter, what we call a core voter, none of this will make a difference. They'll get to the polls no matter what it takes," Berkman said.

"But to a peripheral voter, somebody who is not as committed in any given election, weather can be one of many things that, kind of, shapes their decision to stay home and put it off. 'I'm going to wait an hour, wait an hour,' and next thing you know the polls are closed."

Research is consistent in that Republicans are most likely to endure the "cost" of weather.

In a perfect storm scenario, this could tip the balance at the polls and determine an election.

Data has confirmed this could have been the case in two historic elections.

"The best analysis I've seen of this was done on 14 elections, so over a number of years, and we're looking at turn out in various counties."

Data showed that an inch of rain above normal could bring voter turn out down by as much as one percent. One inch of above-normal snowfall could bring turnout down by half of a percentage point.

"There have been simulations that have been run that estimate, for example the 1960 election with John Kennedy. With some more rain in Illinois, it could have made a difference. Nixon could have won. Because the way the electoral college works, you only need rain in a very isolated area."

A more recent example is the 2000 election in Florida.

"Perhaps if it hadn't rained in the panhandle that day, Democratic turn out could have been higher. They could have picked up the 600 votes to win."

If there's any extreme weather in any of the swing states this election, it's going to hurt the Democrats more than any one else, he said.

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