Research News

Terrorist threats unlikely to boost Obama‘s approval rating, VU professor finds

President Barack Obama, unlike George W. Bush, is not likely to enjoy a surge in public approval after terrorism threats, according to research by Vanderbilt University political scientist Elizabeth Zechmeister and her colleague.

Zechmeister, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, and Jennifer Merolla, associate professor at Claremont Graduate University, are the co-authors of Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public (University of Chicago Press).

In 2008 the researchers did a follow-up study on the impact of terrorist threats on a Democratic incumbent in office. “We asked participants to evaluate candidates in a hypothetical political contest,” Zechmeister said. “A sub-set of the group read a news article describing a context of high terror threat. Some participants were told that the election featured a GOP incumbent against a Democratic challenger, while others were told that the race pitted a Democratic incumbent against a Republican challenger. All of the other information stayed the same,” she said.

Zechmeister said they found that under the exact same mock election story, the Democratic incumbent was evaluated less favorably than the GOP challenger. Meanwhile, participants viewed a GOP incumbent much more positively than his or her Democratic rivals in a hypothetical match-up.

“The Democratic Party is not perceived as capable as the GOP on national security issues,” Zechmeister said. “That is one reason President Obama does not receive the same image boost that we found with former President George W. Bush when terrorism occurred on his watch.”

“Our previous research had found that the public shifted their evaluations of President Bush, who was the Republican incumbent, in a favorable direction when they were presented with information about the possibility of another terrorist attack shortly before the 2004 election,” Zechmeister said. “People who felt threatened by terrorism tended to view Bush as a more charismatic and stronger leader, while they perceived his rival less favorably.”

Zechmeister noted that the lack of movement in Obama‘s approval ratings following the recent Christmas day terrorist attempt is consistent with their 2008 study. “Obama‘s incumbency lends him some advantage but this is cancelled out by his affiliation with the party that historically has been perceived as relatively less capable on matters of national security.”

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS