Did the Florida Hurricanes Cost Kerry the Election?

How is it that from 2000 to 2004 Florida went from counting chads on individual votes to becoming a "decisive" victory for President Bush? Republicans were prepared to blast George Soros and others for spending a fortune on changing minds if Bush lost to John Kerry, but some well-placed federal funds in the sunshine state may just have tipped the scale in Bush's favor.

It has been said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The White House website biography of Grover Cleveland, 22nd (and 24th) President of the United States, mentions that Cleveland took a principled position against offering federal disaster aid:

“President Grover Cleveland vigorously pursued a policy barring special favors to any economic group. Vetoing a bill to appropriate $10,000 to distribute seed grain among drought-stricken farmers in Texas, he wrote: ‘Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character. . . .'”

Cleveland's re-election bid in 1888 was one of the tightest elections of the 19th century. In the end, he won the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College to Benjamin Harrison. While Cleveland carried Texas, with such a narrow margin of victory or defeat, an issue such as the denial of federal disaster relief could have easily been a deciding factor in the election.

But, as Cleveland pointed out to his party leaders, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?”

Fast forward to the 20th Century and George W. Bush's father. Disaster relief actually became an issue during his campaign, and in Florida no less. In August 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and the Bush Administration came under fire for its slow response to offer assistance. There is less of a sense that this was motivated by principled politics, but the result was the same: President Bush lost the election.

His son would not make the same mistake. According to an article shortly after the disaster, “Even before Hurricane Charley struck, the second Bush White House was poised to act. Hours after Hurricane Charley made landfall, federal aid was flowing."

On an individual level, people from all walks of life donated their time, money and resources to aid those in need. But when aid flows from the federal government, especially in an election year, the danger of an unspoken quid pro quo relationship develops. The Bush camp even openly admitted that their use of taxpayer dollars was in some ways an investment that might pay off come November.

According to David Johnson, a Republican consultant and former state party executive director, “This cut through a lot of good Republican turf, and then I-4 – that’s a lot of swing voters."

Florida has 27 Electoral College votes. As in 2000, this state alone could have determined the outcome in 2004. This election may have proved that money can indeed buy votes, but instead of the money coming out of the pockets of the rich, it came from taxpayers all across the country.

November 9, 2004