Do Pandemics Shape Elections? Retrospective voting in the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic in the United States

35 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2020 Last revised: 10 Dec 2020

See all articles by Leticia Arroyo Abad

Leticia Arroyo Abad

CUNY - Queens College

Noel Maurer

George Washington University

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: November 16, 2020


In 2020, many observers were surprised that the COVID-19 outbreak did not appear to have swung the election. Early returns showed little indication that harder-hit areas swung away from the incumbent GOP. In 1918, however, the United States also held an election in the middle of a devastating pandemic. Using county-level epidemiological, electoral, and documentary evidence from 1918-20 we find that flu mortality had a statistically-significant negative effect on the Congressional or gubernatorial vote. The swing, while precise however, was relatively small and not enough to determine the results. We find no effect from flu mortality on turnout rates or on the 1920 presidential election. Our results hold using overall mortality in 1917 and distance to military camps as instruments for 1918 flu deaths. They also withstand tests of coefficient stability and alternative specifications. Considering that the 1918 flu was much more severe than the 2020 COVID pandemic, the historical evidence implies that surprised observers of the 2020 election should not have been so surprised.

Keywords: Spanish flu, influenza, elections, retrospective voting, pandemics, public health, voting behavior

JEL Classification: N41, D72, I180

Suggested Citation

Arroyo Abad, Leticia and Maurer, Noel, Do Pandemics Shape Elections? Retrospective voting in the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic in the United States (November 16, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Leticia Arroyo Abad (Contact Author)

CUNY - Queens College ( email )

65-30 Kissena Blvd
Flushing, NY 11367-1597
United States

Noel Maurer

George Washington University ( email )

2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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