The Contemporary Presidency: Presidents Profiting from Disasters: Evidence of Presidential Distributive Politics


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: The development of this article has benefited from comments and other assistance provided by John Wilkerson, Peter May, Chris Adolph, Matt Barreto, Becca Thorpe, Hannah Walker, Emily Gade, Jeremy Dashiell, and Kassra Oskooii.


In what ways do presidents engage in distributive politics? I study the effects of presidential electoral politics on the federal government's financial response to disasters. Specifically I ask whether swing states or safe states are more likely to receive additional disaster aid through presidentially ordered increases in the federal reimbursement rate for specific disasters. I examine four potential political factors affecting this distribution: swing states versus safe states, a president's base states versus the opposing party's base states, the presence of co-partisan presidents and governors, and the proximity of the next presidential election. I find that the effects vary by administration, with Bill Clinton not appearing to make partisan decisions in this way, while his successors include these factors when making the decisions. These findings demonstrate the presence of partisan political calculations in the distribution of disaster aid and also highlight differences in the ways power is handled in different presidential administrations.