October 18, 2004

Grad Finds Correlation Between Warnings, Approval

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President Bush’s approval ratings increase after the government issues a terror alert, according to Robb Willer grad, sociology. Willer conducted a study, “The Effects of Government-Issued Terror Warnings on Presidential Approval Ratings,” published in the online journal Current Research In Social Psychology earlier this fall.

From Feb. 1, 2001 to May 9, 2004, Willer recorded nationally reported terror alerts from The Washington Post. He used the Gallup Polls to follow general presidential approval ratings and ratings of the President’s handling of the economy.

Willer then ran several time-series data and regression analyses and found a clear pattern of government-issued terror threats leading to an increase in approval ratings for President Bush.

By measuring the impact of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Willer found that the President’s approval ratings went from 51 percent on September 10 to 86 percent on Sept. 15.

Willer said that this phenomenon can be explained by the social identity theory — the idea that support for current political leaders increases when there is a national fear of outside attacks. On average he found a 2.75 percentage point increase in general presidential approval the week after a terror alert. “The implications are that government-issued terror threats have a bigger effect than previously thought,” Willer said.

Willer followed approval ratings of the President’s handling of the economy, an aspect of the President that is unrelated to terrorism.

He tested for a halo effect — the concept of assuming that someone would be highly regarded in one trait because the individual is highly rated in another trait. Willer wanted to see if a terror alert would effect ratings on the President’s handling of the economy due to the halo effect. Approval ratings for Bush’s handling of the economy increased after Sept. 11, from 54 percent on July 11 to 72 percent on Oct. 5, 2001.

“This is an example of the ‘rally around the flag’ effect; when there is some kind of threat, people tend to support the president,” said Prof. Walter R. Mebane Jr., government.

He added that this is one reason why it is hard to defeat the incumbent during a presidential election when the country is at war.

“I found it very compelling and think that it would be interesting to look at what else is going on in the world when a terror alert is issued and if leaders raise the terror alert when they are in need of more approval,” said Prof. Mabel M. Berezin, sociology.

Willer plans on following up the study with experimental research.

Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman
Sun Staff Writer