As a general rule, the American public rallies to the president’s support in times of international crisis, causing the presidential popularity trend line to curve upwards—and often steeply so. For example, the week before the onset of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, President George H.W. Bush’s popularity rating was 64%; within just a few days it climbed to 86%. A decade later the same scenario played out in the the wake of the September 11 attacks, as President George W. Bush’s rating shot up from 51% to 85%.
Aggregate trends like these, however, often conceal as much as they reveal, for the dynamics of aggregate change depend on trends that operate beneath the surface, at the level of specific subgroups of the public—some of which move in one direction, some in another direction, and some hardly at all.
Our cross-town colleague Jonathan Ladd has recently provided an interesting case study of such beneath-the-surface opinion trends (abstract here). Focusing on American public reactions to September 11, Ladd probes the possibility that the responses of citizens who were more politically aware were governed by different considerations than the responses of those who were less politically aware. Ladd hypothesizes that in such circumstances a “pure” (my terminology, not his) rally effect occurs among those who don’t follow politics closely, while the responses of those who are more politically aware reflect their ideological or partisan predispositions. Ladd’s analysis of data from a panel survey conducted in 2000 and 2002 reveals that ratings of Bush rose significantly among the less politically aware irrespective of their predispositions concerning U.S. defense policy. Meanwhile, among the more politically aware the rally effect was smaller across the board and, consistent with Ladd’s interpretation, it was closely tied to defense policy predispositions. September 11 apparently “primed” these more politically aware citizens to weigh defense policy issues more heavily in their overall assessments of Bush, while the less aware reacted more viscerally to the crisis itself.
Looking at this set of results, different people might reach different conclusions. Here is Ladd’s own take:
As it (unexpectedly) became clear that security issues would be a central part of George W. Bush’s presidency, a conscientious response could be to increasingly base one’s presidential evaluation on whether the President’s views on this issue matched one’s preferences. The normative implications of the ordinary rally experienced by the less politically aware are less clear. It could be thought of as either an example of dangerous gullibility or as a sensible response to a temporary national crisis. …In the end, a normative assessment of whether rallying or being primed are sensible public responses to a national crisis may depend on the importance one assigns to delegate versus Burkean notions of representation, one’s belief about the trustworthiness of the person holding the presidency at the time of the crisis to behave in good faith, and on the nature of that particular crisis.