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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Study: Terror warnings increase Bush's approval ratings, even on the economy?

    Posted by Adam Crouch

Robb Willer, Asst. Director of the Sociology and Small Groups Laboratory at Cornell and a Sociology PhD candidate at Cornell, just had this paper published in Current Research In Social Psychology (CRISP -- who said Sociologists don't have a sense of humor?). It found that when the President issues a terror alert, his approval rating increases an average of 2.75 points the following week:
This study investigates the possibility that government-issued terror warnings could increase support for the president. This contention is supported anecdotally by the large increase in presidential approval immediately following the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001. Additionally, social identity theory suggests that fear of external attacks leads to increased support for standing leaders. To evaluate this proposition, I conducted several time-series analyses on the relationship between government-issued terror warnings reported in the Washington Post between February 2001 and May 2004, and Gallup poll data on Americans' opinions of President George W. Bush. Across several regression models, results showed a consistent, positive relationship between terror warnings and presidential approval. I also found that government-issued terror warnings increased support for President Bush's handling of the economy. Analyses intended to determine the duration of these effects were inconclusive.

He explains social identity theory in academic-speak in the paper, but here's what it means. People identify with those that are like them. The greater the percieved threat from outsiders, the greater is the tendency for the tribe to stick together. And when there's greater solidarity, people are more likely to stand behind their leader.

I'll go into all the stats details now, including what the most predictive variables were. If you aren't interested in that, just skip to the "What does it all mean?" section.

Willer had two hypotheses in this study

Do Government-issued terror warnings have a positive effect on presidential approval ratings?

In addition to including the number of terror warnings (dependent variable), he also ran regressions including controls and lags.

The controls are intended to capture the effects of specific events that had a big impact on Bush's approval ratings, because otherwise terror threats that were around the same time as say the capture of Saddam Hussein would seem to have a very large impact, when in fact most of the impact on Bush's approval rating was due to that event, not the terror warning.

The lags on the dependent variable include what his approval ratings were for the prior four polls. This is intended to capture the increase in Bush's poll numbers. If you see that Bush's approval rating is 60% right after a given terror warning, what you really care about is how much it increased from the last poll, not the sheer fact that it's 60%.

The other lags are on the independent variable -- the number of terror warnings in the prior 3 weeks. These are intended to capture how long the impact of a terror warning on approval rates lasts.

Alright, with that setup, here is how the candidate variables ranked in terms of their power in predicting Bush's approval ratings in a given poll. A (+) indicates that it is positively correlated with his poll numbers (when one increases, the other tends to increase), a (-) indicates that it is negatively correlated (when one increases, the other tends to decrease)

Very significant (p < .001)
Most recent approval level (+)
9/11 (+, his approval was higher)
Afghanistan War (-, his approval was lower)
Iraq War (+, his approval was higher)

Significant (p < .01)
Number of terror warnings less than 1 week prior (+)

Somewhat Significant (p < .05)
4th most recent approval level (+)

Marginally Significant (p < .10)
3rd most recent approval level (+)
Hussein Capture (+)

Not Significant (p >= .10)
Number of terror warnings 1-2 weeks prior
Number of terror warnings 2-3 weeks prior
2nd most recent approval level
Abu Ghraib Photos

Do government-issued terror warnings have a positive impact on presidental approval ratings on the economy?

The same setup as above. The same candidate variables were used, and he did not add variables dealing with the economy specifically, like the unemployment rate at the time of the poll.

Very significant (p < .001)
9/11 (+)

Significant (p < .01)

Somewhat Significant (p < .05)
Most recent economy approval level (+)
2nd most recent economy approval level (+)
Hussein Capture (+)
Iraq War (+)

Marginally Significant (p < .10)
Number of terror warnings less than 1 week prior (+)

Not Significant (p >= .10)
Number of terror warnings 1-2 weeks prior
Number of terror warnings 2-3 weeks prior
3rd most recent economy approval level
Afghanistan War
Abu Ghraib Photos

What does it all mean?

Bush has been widely accused of issuing terror alerts simply to raise his poll numbers, without a real threat. This study proves an important part of that accusation, namely that his poll numbers really do increase after terror warnings, though the increase is pretty short-lived.

It does not suggest, however, that polls are the reason why the alerts were issued. Indeed, it shows that if Bush and Karl Rove want to up their poll numbers, terror warnings are a fairly inefficient way to do it, providing only a transient benefit. A Bush supporter could argue that this study merely shows that the public believes that Bush is tough on terrorism, and so thinks of him more favorably when terrorism is at the front of their minds.

A more damning study would be the exact opposite of this -- using poll numbers, unemployment rates, and bad news to predict whether or not there will be a terror warning. That would only show correlation, not causation, of course, but it would certainly be harder to argue away.

The study's more sensational conclusion, that terror warnings raise the president's approval ratings on the economy, seems a bit tenuous. The correlation is not terribly high, and this is without using any economic variables. If this like unemployment rate, jobless claims, quarterly GDP growth, S&P 500 trends, etc were used, the correlation would probably be even smaller.

The anecdote that spurred this study, namely that Bush's economic approval ratings increased significantly after 9/11, is still very interesting though. It came up as the most significant variable by far in the economic approval regression.

For Discussion (Kling-style): What do you make of the post-9/11 increase in the public's approval of Bush's handling of the economy? Are there any alternative explanations?

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