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Who is Held Responsible When Disaster Strikes? The Attribution of Responsibility for a Natural Disaster in an Urban Election


* Robert M. Stein, Dean of Social Sciences, Rice University, 6100 Main St., Houston, TX 77005. E-mail:


Abstract: When do voters hold politicians accountable for events outside their control? In this article, we take advantage of a rare situation in which a prominent election in a large city followed a devastating flood. We find that voters are willing to punish the incumbent mayor for the flood if they believed the city was responsible for flood preparation. Moreover, we find that the attributions of responsibility for flood preparation are shaped by whether respondents lived in a neighborhood hard hit by the flood and the degree of knowledge they possessed about local, rather than national, politics. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of the psychology of attribution for voting behavior and electoral outcomes.