Americans’ Opinions of FEMA’s Responses to Alabama and Puerto Rico

On March 3, 2019, a series of tornadoes hit towns across Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. The worst one decimated a number of communities around Beauregard, Alabama, claiming 23 lives and injuring close to 100.  The next morning President Trump tweeted:

FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated by the Tornadoes. @GovernorKayIvey, one of the best in our Country, has been so informed. She is working closely with FEMA (and me!).

Needless to say, President Trump’s words angered many. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be impartial when it reacts to a natural disaster, the tweet suggests that the President affects the amount of assistance FEMA provides. Has Trump be playing favorites, favoring red states over blue states? Have his negative views of Puerto Rico explain why the federal government has been slow at disbursing the funds appropriated to finance the island’s recovery?

This is likely to become an issue in next year’s presidential elections. For instance, both Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro have recently visited Puerto Rico to highlight the Trump administration’s “‘disrespectful’ treatment”  of the island’s 3.3 million U.S. citizens. Do Americans share Warren’s or Castro’s views?

The most recent Economist/YouGov Poll (March 10-12, 2019) asked its panel the following question: “Do you think the federal government was more responsive to the tornadoes in Alabama or the hurricane that struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands?” 

Do you think the federal government was more responsive to the tornadoes in Alabama or the hurricane that struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands_

Sadly, but not surprisingly, many Americans think that the federal government has favored Alabama over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Could this be problematic for the White House? A close look at the survey’s crosstabs show that 66% of Democrats believe the federal government favored Alabama over the other U.S. territories, while only 32% of independent and 28% of Republicans share this opinion. 

The survey also asked respondents to evaluate the President Trump’s and the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. This is the fifth time this survey posed this question, allowing us to track Americans’ attitudes for the past 18 months. 

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump handled the response to Hurricane Maria_

The numbers have not fluctuated too much since YouGov asked this question in last year’s surveys. As noted above, partisanship determines how negatively respondents feel about Trump’s handling of the response. Thus, 80% of Democrats disapprove of his response, while 77% of Republicans approve of his performance. Independents, an important voting group, are more divided with 31% approving and 39% disapproving of President Trump’s actions.

Respondents were also asked to rate the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria. 

Do you think the federal government has responded adequately to Hurricane Maria or could it be done much better_

As noted above, there is not too much change in the last few months. Republicans are more likely to have positive views of the government’s response, while Democrats are more critical. Today, 43% of independents tend to be critical, though this represents a 4% drop from September 2018.

How salient is this issue? Will it affect the 2020 presidential elections? Right now, other issues will likely overshadow the Trump administration’s treatment of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. But this issue will prove be problematic with President Trump in Florida, a state he needs to win if he hopes to win reelection.

Author’s Note: A version of this post is also found in the The Puerto Rico Data Lab, a blog I created to reflect on US-Puerto Rico relations in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. You can follow me in Twitter at the following accounts: @cyordan or @pr_datalab.

Fact-Checking Governor Ricardo Rossello’s Claims on Statehood for Puerto Rico

This post was published in Pasquines on October 4, 2018.  

At the end of September, Newsweek’s Robert Valencia interviewed Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor, Ricardo Rosselló. They met a few days after President Donald Trump told Geraldo Rivera that he did not support Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations. The president also blamed the island’s recovery on Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, and other “incompetent” leaders. Rosselló used the interview to make a case for why Puerto Rico should be admitted as the nation’s 51st state.

In making his case for statehood,  Rosselló made two problematic statements that require further scrutiny. For example, he told Valencia that  “Prior to the storm, only 20 percent of U.S. citizens in the mainland knew that we were citizens, and now, more than 90 percent do.” For the governor, this is Hurricane Maria’s silver lining. But, it is not clear how Rosselló reached this conclusion, as survey data discredits his view.

For the last two years, The Economist/YouGov poll has asked its respondents the following question: “What is the national citizenship of a person born in Puerto Rico whose parents were both also born in Puerto Rico?” Let us look at the responses collected on May 2016 – as Congress debated the PROMESA bill, October 2017 – following Hurricane Maria,  and June 2018 – after the New England Journal of Medicine published a study argued that the storm claimed the lives of an estimated 4,465 individuals.

The results of the most recent poll are not too encouraging. The number of people who were “not sure” about Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status has increased in the last two years. While the increased media coverage of Hurricane Maria helped many Americans realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the newest survey shows a substantial decrease in the number of Americans who understand this reality.

Trying to gauge Puerto Ricans’ support for statehood, Valencia asked Rosselló  whether the low participation rate in the June 2017 status plebiscite was an indication that Puerto Ricans “have lost interest in statehood.” He also asked the governor whether his constituents’ support for statehood has changed in the last year.

Rosselló  argued that “The only reason folks decided not to participate in the plebiscite last year was that they knew what the outcome was going to be: that people were going to support statehood.” He also stressed that the current “support for statehood is big.” Let us look at the first statement.

It is difficult to explain why voters did not participate in the referendum. El Nuevo Dia conducted a poll two weeks before the vote that found that 52% of registered voters favored statehood, while 11% noted that they would not participate in the process. Another survey predicted the statehood option would win with 56% support and it found that only 15% would either support the opposition parties’ call for a boycott of the plebiscite or would not vote.

Given that the average participation rate in past status plebiscites and referendums is 72%, why did so many registered voters abstain from the vote? After the plebiscite, Jose Alfonso, who conducted El Nuevo Dia’s poll, re-surveyed the respondents in the original study. Based on these conversations, he argues that only 7% did not vote to show solidarity with the boycott. Around half of the sample explained that did not vote because the results of the plebiscite were not binding. Another 24% of respondents explained that the process was not fair and that Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (NPP) had included status options that did not reflect voters’ preferences.

It is not also clear whether Puerto Ricans’ support for statehood has increased or decreased after Hurricane Maria. However, a recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey, conducted in Puerto Rico this summer, concluded that 48% of Puerto Ricans support statehood and 26% the status quo. While 10% favor independence, 16% refused to answer the question or did know now which option to choose. These results clearly demonstrate that Rosselló has exaggerated Puerto Ricans’ support for statehood after Maria.

Why are Rosselló’s statements problematic? For statehood to become a reality, Rossello and the NPP’s leadership need to get their facts straight. While media coverage of Puerto Rico has increased in the United States since Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s infrastructure, there is little evidence that U.S. citizens in the mainland know more about Puerto Ricans’ legal status or support the island’s incorporation as the 51st state. Just because 97% of those who participated in the 2017 status plebiscite voted in favor of statehood does not mean that most Puerto Ricans support statehood. If Rossello and the NPP leadership want Puerto Rico to become the next state of the union, they have to recognize that the statehood movement still faces lots of obstacles and that the NPP will need to spend more time and resources persuading Americans, both in the island and the in the mainland, about the benefits of statehood for Puerto Rico and the nation as a whole.

About the author: Carlos L. Yordán is an associate professor of political science and international relations and the director of the Semester on the United Nations at Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is currently researching U.S.-Puerto Rico relations in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Would Americans Support a Reduction of the U.S.’s Contribution to the U.N. Regular Budget?

The U.N. General Assembly’s General Debate starts on September 25, 2018. This year’s theme is “Making the United Nations Relevant to All People.” While this is a lofty title, it fails to capture the U.N.’s short-term challenges: convincing the Trump administration’s of its relevance. 

Since he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Donald Trump has questioned the significance of multilateral institutions and the rules that guide the global trading system. He has even been chastised U.S. relations with Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom and other European states. So it is not surprising that President Trump thinks that the U.S. needs to rethink its foreign policy priorities and it should only finance those international institutions that advance the nation’s interests. This explains why the Trump administration has decided to stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, better known as UNRWA, in late August 2018. 

The U.S. currently pays 22% of the U.N. Regular Budget, which finances the organization’s Secretariat and many of the U.N.’s policies. The current U.N. Regular Budget (2018-19), which is for two years, is $5.4 billion and the U.S. contributes around $1 billion during this time period. Even though the U.N. Secretary General had proposed to cut the current budget by $193 million, the U.S. forced the the U.N. to further reduce the budget by $93 million to achieve a 5% reduction of the amount budgeted for the U.N. in 2016-17.

What do Americans think of the U.S. contributions to the U.N. Regular Budget? Do they want the U.S. to cut its funding or withhold it as a way to penalize the U.N. for thwarting U.S. interests?

The Better World Campaign (BWC), a non-profit group that is trying to strengthen the bonds between the U.S. and the U.N., have been conducting public opinion surveys of American attitudes towards the U.N. since 2009. Its newest poll was conducted a year ago after President Trump delivered his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

Polling from the BWC not only finds that Americans have favorable views of the U.N., but that these positive opinions have increased over time. According to latest figures, 65% of Americans have a positive opinion of the U.N., while 28% have a unfavorable view.

This chart summarizes the proportion of Americans who view the United Nations favorably.

Given the fact that so many Americans have a favorable attitude to the U.N., they should be critical of any effort to cut the U.N. Regular Budget or withhold payment of U.S.’s contribution as way to penalize the U.N. when it contradicts American foreign policy interests. 

Since 2019, the BWC’s polls have asked the following question:

Each member-nation of the UN pays a portion of the UN regular budget in the form of dues. These dues are based on a member-nation’s capacity to pay or its share of world income. The U.S. represents approximately 25% of the world’s income, and is assessed to pay 22% of the UN’s budget. Knowing this do you favor or oppose the U.S. paying our dues to the UN on time and in full?

Using the Better World Campaign survey's findings, Americans overwhelmingly favor the U.S. paying its dues to the U.N. Regular Budget.

These findings suggests that most Americans would not support the Trump administration’s efforts to politicize the U.N. budgetary process. But, this is not actually the case.

The last BWC survey (October 2017) asked respondents to rate portions of President Trump’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly using 1-100 scale, where 100 represents the strongest support for the statement. The BWC asked respondents to rate the following statement:

“The United States bears an unfair cost burden for the United Nations’ budget, but, to be fair, if the United Nations could actually accomplish all of its stated goals, especially the goal of peace, this investment would easily be well worth it.”

U.S. President Donald Trump
Respondents were asked to rate their support for a portion of the President Trump's speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017. In the statement, the president considers whether the U.S. contributions to the U.N. are unfair. In this rating, "100" equals the strongest support for the statement and "1" the lowest support.

Given that President Trump is a very divisive figure, it is interesting that many of the people who strongly supported paying in full the U.S.’s dues to the U.N. Regular Budget also support his views. Indeed, 20% of respondents fully agreed with the statement and another 42% gave it ratings ranging from 80 to 100 points. 

Even though the surveys of the BWC find that most Americans have favorable views of the U.N. and many of its policies, other surveys demonstrate that Americans are a lot of more critical of the U.N.

Since the 1950s, Gallup has been asking respondents the following question: “Do you think the United Nations is doing a good job a poor job in trying to solve the problems it has had to face.” As the next chart demonstrates, Americans’ opinions of the U.N. have shifted over time. Compared to BWC survey’s results, the Gallup’s findings show that many Americans give the U.N. poor marks.

Using Gallup data, the chart summarizes Americans' attitudes of U.N. efforts to address the world's problems.

It is difficult to explain why Americans have these different views about the UN and why so many agree with President Trump’s statement. But, it is worth noting that Trump’s remarks stress that if the U.N. could deliver on its promises, “this investment would be easily worth it”. Trump’s views force respondents to question whether the U.N. is doing a “good” or a “poor” job – to use the Gallup survey’s characterization. Thus, this could explain the disparity in the BWC survey between those that strongly want the U.S. government to pay its dues fully and on time versus those respondents who support Trump’s statement. 

Given that the BWC and Gallup surveys fail to give us a crosstabulation of their findings, it is difficult to see which Americans are most supportive or most critical. The Pew Research Center has conducted surveys on American’s public opinion of the U.N. for the last two decades. And one of their key findings is respondents’ party affiliation affects their views of the U.N. In 2016, 43% of Republicans had a favorable view of the U.N., while the same was true for 80% of Democrats and 64% of independents.

In this post, we considered whether the U.S. public would support the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce its contribution to the U.N. Regular Budget or to withhold payment of its dues as a way to penalize policies carried by the U.N. While most Americans want the U.S. to pay in full and in time its budgetary contributions, many Americans also agree with President Trump’s view that the U.S. contribution is “unfair”. Given the Gallup poll’s findings, we should expect President Trump to continue his line of attack to make sure the U.N. and the Secretary General do not contradict U.S. interests.

This brief analysis demonstrates that the U.N. leadership’s short-term challenge is not to convince “all people” of the U.N.’s current relevance. The Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, and his colleagues have to also persuade President Trump that America’s budgetary contributions will help the U.N. advance its interests. If the Trump administration decides to cut its funding or delay payment, the U.N. will have also curtail its activities, jeopardizing its 2030 Agenda

About the author: Carlos L. Yordán is a long-time observer of the United Nations. He is currently associate professor of political science and international relations & director of the Semester on the United Nations at Drew University.

Does Donald Trump Care about Puerto Ricans Affected by Hurricane Maria?

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on September 20, 2017. Despite all the ups and downs associated with the island’s slow recovery after the storm, one thing seems to pretty steady. President Donald Trump and his White House have been arduously working to make sure that Hurricane Maria does not become the President’s Katrina. 

Many experts believe that the Bush administration’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans and communities along Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s coast hurt President George W. Bush’s approval ratings and undermined his leadership on domestic issues.  

Once it became clear that Hurricane Florence was going to hit the southeast coast of the United States, President Trump knew that he had to go on the offensive and show that his administration was ready to respond to the storm’s future impact. On September 12, 2018, Trump tweeted:

We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!

Other tweets followed, reassuring Americans that FEMA and first-responders “are supplied and ready” and asking those people in the path of the storm to “follow local evacuation orders”.

President Trump’s views on Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria set off a media storm. Rather than ignoring the criticisms, he doubled his efforts. In one of his tweets, he cited Fox Business News Lou Dobb’s view that: “The people of Puerto Rico have one of the most corrupt governments in our country”, alleging that the island’s slow recovery rested in the hands of the local government. He then had the audacity to  question the validity of a new study conducted by George Washington University on behalf of the Government of Puerto Rico that estimates the death-toll associated with Hurricane Maria was close to 3,000 lives.

What do Americans think of President Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria? Do they think that he cares for to needs of the victims of this Category 4 storm?

The recent Economist/YouGov poll (September 16-18, 2018) can help us answers these two questions. It is worth noting that this polling firm has asked the same questions three times since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, helping us understand whether American public opinion has shifted in this time period.

These questions were first asked on October 1-3, 2017 as President Trump visited Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to survey the hurricane’s damages. The questions were fielded again on June 3-5, 2017 after the publication of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that questioned the Government of Puerto Rico’s mortality data following Hurricane Maria and estimated that hurricane-related deaths stood between 793 and 8,498.

Let’s look at respondents’ answers to the first question.

It seems that Americans are slightly more critical of the president’s handling of Hurricane Maria. Have his tweets hurt his political standing among his supporters or independent voters?

It is worth noting that President Trump did not address Puerto Rico’s slow recovery or the controversy regarding the Puerto Rico Government’s inability to account for all the hurricane-related deaths. This could explain why his political standing with his supporters may have declined in early June 2018. The important finding is that his base thinks that his response to Hurricane Maria was the right one.

Given that the midterm elections are around the corner, it is important to considering whether independents approve or disapprove of the president’s response to Hurricane Maria.

While independents are more critical today of President Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria, it is worth emphasizing that his standing has slightly improved with this voting group since June.

Needless to say, the president’s strongest critics identify as Democrats. In October 2017, 54% of Democrats disapproved of his handling of the situation increasing to 73% today.

The Economist/YouGov Poll also asked respondents the following question: “How much do you think Donald Trump cares about the needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria?” This question, as I noted in a previous post, is basically asking respondents to look past policy issues and to judge his moral character and his empathy towards others.

It is clear that while 46% of Americans approve of his handling of Hurricane Maria, many question his empathy towards the victims of the storm. This is even true among his strongest supporters.

Today 6 in 10 Democrats believe he does not care “about the needs and problems of people affected by Hurricane Maria”, while 37% of independents feel the same way.

Could these attitudes affect President Trump’s job approval? It is difficult to say. So far, it seems that while Trump’s supporters have problems with his moral character, they are not ready to abandon him at this point. We even see this attitudes with some members of Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party (NPP), which currently controls Puerto Rico’s governorship and the legislature. While many Puerto Ricans were angered by Trump’s tweets, many of the NPP leaders, who identify as Republicans, publicly defended the president’s response.

So far, it is difficult to say whether or not Americans believe that Hurricane Maria is Trump’s Katrina or whether the island’s slow recovery will hurt his future electoral prospects.What is clear is that many Americans still support Trump, though many do question his character. While this may seem strange, it is important to remember that as electoral races across the country start to intensify, the American public will become more polarized. Thus, we should expect that Trump’s support among Republicans and among his more ardent supporters to grow, regardless of how they feel about his moral deficiencies.

NOTE: In the next weeks, the Puerto Rico Data Lab will be transition to this new site. For now, I will be publishing the same post in both platforms.