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How Hurricanes Have Disrupted and Defined Past Elections

The response of presidents and candidates to storms in past election years has resulted in memorable moments. But was there a political impact?
Image: U.S. President Barack Obama hugs marina owner after it was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey
U.S. President Barack Obama (3rd L) hugs North Point Marina owner Donna Vanzant as he tours damage done by Hurricane Sandy in Brigantine, New Jersey. At left is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. LARRY DOWNING / Reuters

For some Florida residents, the impending impact of Hurricane Matthew will conjure up memories of another election year storm that hit when a different Clinton was on the presidential ballot.

In 1992, pundits predicted that the Category 5 Hurricane Andrew could significantly impact the results of an unpredictable three-way race between Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, businessman Ross Perot and incumbent President George H. W. Bush.

At the time, there was considerable hand wringing over the speed with which H.W. Bush's administration responded to the crisis. "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one? For God's sake, where are they?" lamented Miami-Dade County's emergency operations director Kate Hale to reporters. The president's terse response from the Rose Garden was: “I’m not going to participate in the blame game."

Eventually, more federal resources were deployed to the Sunshine State and a New York Times/CBS News poll that September showed that a majority of Florida voters approved of H.W. Bush's handling of the disaster. Forty percent described the response as adequate, while more than 60 percent felt that federal action should have come sooner. Some of the blame was also levied at Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles for not asking for federal aid earlier.

Still, the same poll found and overwhelming majority of Florida voters would not be influenced by the storm response when it came to their presidential preference. President Bush would narrowly win the state, but fall short in national results, while the close Florida margin marked the beginning of this once deep red state becoming a routine presidential battleground.

Twelve years after Andrew, Bush's son President George W. Bush had his father's fate in mind when Hurricanes Charley and Frances both hit Florida (where his brother Jeb was still governor) in the late summer and early fall of 2004. Bush made a deliberate effort to get on the ground quickly, and the parallels with his father's polarizing response to Hurricane Andrew were not lost on him.

Related: Clinton Camp Buys Weather Channel Ads in Florida as Storm Looms

The storm provided Bush with an opportunity to appear presidential in a state where he was trailing at the time (he would win the state narrowly in November). He told reporters: "If I didn't come, they would have said, 'He should have been here more rapidly.'"

But the following year, Bush didn't follow his own example, appearing unprepared and passive when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast stranding and killing thousands of people.

Now seen as one of the lowest points of George W. Bush's presidency, the fallout of that storm and the widely condemned federal response shook confidence in the White House (a CBS News poll found that just 32 percent of Americans expressed a lot of confidence in the president's ability to handle a crisis following Katrina) and it likely contributed to a massive Democratic victory in the 2006 midterms.

"There's no question that it has refocused attention on issues of race and economics and the poor and a number of domestic issues," former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon told the New York Times that spring. "There's a possibility that New Orleans has transformed the politics of the nation."

Bush's image never really rebounded with the public. Coincidentally, in 2008, he could only appear at the Republican National Convention (which nominated his former foe Sen. John McCain for president) via satellite because the government was trying to address Hurricane Gustav.

In fact, the storm significantly truncated that entire convention's first day, a significant setback that would also derail the first day of the RNC four years later in August 2012 thanks to Hurricane Isaac.

Related: Hurricane Matthew Strengthens as Florida Governor Urges Evacuations

That same year, Hurricane Sandy — which took a heavy toll on New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — acted as a sort of "October surprise" in that year's election contest between Mitt Romney and incumbent President Barack Obama.

While it's unclear if the president's response to the superstorm made a significant impact on the final election results, the image of Obama being embraced by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (a Romney supporter and surrogate) became one of the more indelible moments of the campaign season.

Christie was widely criticized in conservative circles for helping Obama appear magnanimous and presidential by praising his response to the disaster.

“If the president of United States comes here and he's willing to help my people and he does it, then I'm gonna say nice things about him, because he's earned it,” Christie said at the time, while reiterating his support for the GOP nominee. “Anybody who is upset in the Republican Party about this — they haven't been to New Jersey. Come see the destruction, come see the loss.”

Additionally, the impact of Sandy re-opened a national conversation about climate change and the federal government's role in responding to natural disasters at a particularly inopportune time for Romney and other Republicans who had appeared stingy in the past when it came to funding natural disaster relief efforts.

The New York Times took the then-Republican nominee to task in an editorial for expressing skepticism in the past about whether the federal government should intervene in cases of natural disasters as well as for praising budgets that would have severely cut relief funding.

Republican campaign guru Karl Rove conceded that Hurricane Sandy likely swung voters Obama's way.

“If you hadn’t had the storm, there would have been more of a chance for the Romney campaign to talk about the deficit, the debt, the economy. There was a stutter in the campaign," Rove told the Washington Post that November. "When you have attention drawn away to somewhere else, to something else, it is not to his advantage.”

This week, right wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went so far as to suggest that hurricanes are a conspiracy concocted by progressives to advance their causes, while claiming there have been "no major hurricanes" in the 11 years since Katrina, overlooking Sandy, as well as Hurricanes Ike and Irene.

“It’s in the interest of the left to have destructive hurricanes because then they can blame it on climate change, which they can desperately continue trying to sell,” he said on his radio program.

However, if superstorms were being hyped as part of a liberal conspiracy, it would be a particularly risky one. The devastating impact could ultimately dampen turnout and, in the case of storms prior to Election Day, have an impact on early voting, which is recent presidential contests has been more advantageous for Democrats.

Related: The 2016 Race Has Returned to Where It Was Six Weeks Ago

Florida and North Carolina start in-person early voting in the next two weeks, and the Clinton campaign's purported ground game advantage could take a significant hit if Hurricane Matthew proves to be as powerful as predicted. NBC News reached out to both state's boards of elections to find out if any safeguards were in place to protect early voting in the midst of the storm's aftermath, but has not received a response at this time.

Both swing states have started to trend in Clinton's favor in recent public opinion polls, but should the federal government fall short in coming to the region's aid, it could reflect badly on her since there is a Democratic incumbent and she is perceived as a staunch supporter of good government.

Trump, on the other hand, could use the situation to underline his campaign themes of an ineffectual federal bureaucracy.

In 2012, during the fallout from Hurricane Sandy, he was anything but subtle, doubling down on his pledge to provide $5 million to charity for proof of President Obama's citizenship and lamenting that voters would re-elect the president because he is "bravely standing in water."

However, polling research following Obama's victory that year showed that while the public did approve of the president's handling of Sandy, he had the race well in hand prior to that event. If anything, his support had ticked slightly downward in its aftermath.

And yet, in many circles, the perception (however inaccurate) remains that the storm swung votes and potentially cost Republicans the White House, so how candidates respond to these crises has taken on greater significance among pundits and commentators, even if the people directly affected by the disasters have much more serious concerns.