Drought threatens to darken Obama reelection prospects

With nearly two-thirds of the US enduring drought conditions, food prices are expected to jump ahead of the November election. That could add to voter anxieties about the economy.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
A drought stricken corn field is seen in DeWitt, Iowa, Thursday. Drought in the Midwest worsened over the past week, with a third of the nine-state region in severe to exceptional drought in the week ended July 10, the Drought Monitor said.

A massive drought parching some of America’s most productive farm regions is pushing food prices up to the point where wilting corn plants could influence the presidential election.

More than 1,000 US counties – many of them in the grain capitals of the Midwest – have applied for federal disaster relief, meaning they’ve had drought conditions for more than eight weeks. Moreover, 61 percent of the US is now considered drought-stricken, the highest percentage in the 12-year history of the US Drought Monitor. 

Drought or no drought, the US will still produce about a third of the world’s corn and will see its third-largest corn crop ever. Moreover, a drought prognosis by Iowa State University agri-economist Chad Hart suggests that parts of the country – including Georgia and portions of Texas – are likely to see relief as the summer progresses, even as some part of the Midwest may see dry conditions worsen.

But if wilting plants result in yield below what was expected in the futures markets, prices will rise further. Already, prices have risen by about 30 percent, meaning consumers could see short-term price impacts on manufactured goods like cereals and even soft drinks this fall and rising meat prices next year.

Researchers have pegged inflation and “rate of income” as two major factors for voters in presidential elections. With gas prices again inching up and “now the drought impact on the food sector, we’re going to have an inflation issue here, and that will put a damper on consumer confidence and will have a major impact on the election,” says Michael Walden, a consumer economics expert at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Record-setting heat waves that have fueled fires in the Mountain West have also had a dramatic effect on the corn crop at a particularly vulnerable time. Currently, 30 percent of the corn crop in the 18 chief corn-growing states is now in poor condition, up 8 percentage points from a week earlier.

"In the hottest areas last week, which were generally dry, crop conditions deteriorated quickly," wrote Rich Tinker, author of the Drought Monitor.

Inflation, which had been estimated at 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent for this year, likely will inch up to 3 percent to 3.5 percent, Chris Hurt, a Purdue University agricultural economist, tells The Town Talk news site.

No one is suggesting that President Obama should take direct blame for the drought. In fact, his administration has been adamant about taking on global climate change, which some suggest could be playing a role in the unseasonably, and in many places historic, heat that’s blanketed the country this year.

Yet drought-related food inflation could serve to highlight the overall weakness of the economy – a potential problem for Mr. Obama.

Of course, the current drought could break, as it seems to have begun to do in Georgia, where copious rain has fallen in the past few days. Moreover, the extent and timing of rising food prices remain big X factors as the two presidential campaigns steer toward November.

“Whether [the drought] affects the election will depend on the timing,” says James Campbell, a political scientist who specializes in presidential politics at the University at Buffalo in New York. “The drought will most likely affect food prices later in the year, and the question is, will that be too late to make a difference?”

More than three-quarters of voters will likely have made up their minds before the last days of the election, when food prices might be rising. But Professor Campbell adds: “Those late deciders, they’re going to decide the election.”

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