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Bin Laden and the rally effect

A huge problem for a column ostensibly devoted to polls and politics — the biggest story of the decade breaks the day before the piece is due and there is not a poll to be had on the subject. 

So we are reduced to rank speculation — or at best some history and theory — about the political impact of President Obama’s spectacularly successful effort to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. 

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First named by political scientist John Mueller in a 1970 study of presidential popularity, the “rally ’round the flag” (or better, “rally ’round the president”) effect, in which presidents’ approval ratings spike in the immediate aftermath of sudden, high-profile foreign-policy events, is one of the most studied public opinion phenomena. 

The basic outlines are clear. Presidential approval ratings almost always go up during high-intensity foreign-policy events. George W. Bush’s ratings shot upward on 9/11, as they did the day we invaded Afghanistan and again as we invaded Iraq. 

Success is not a prerequisite for a rally effect. President Carter’s ratings spiked the day the hostages were seized in Iran. President John F. Kennedy reacted with bemused incredulity when his approval rating rose in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. (For those who have lost track of the details, the word “fiasco” should be a tip-off that it didn’t turn out so well.)

One theory identifies patriotism as the cause of rally effects. Crises involving foreigners instantiate “us”-versus-“them” thinking that animates every social species. Whoever the “we” and “them” might be, whenever “we” feel threatened by “them,” or triumph over “them,” “we” pull together in the face of the outsider. That unity reflects itself in social solidarity and support for the leader. 

Some scholars dissented from this causal explanation, asking why, if patriotism is at the core, the 1975 Mayaguez incident (wherein U.S. troops attacked the Khmer Rouge who had seized an American cargo ship) initially rallied voters, while the seizure of the Pueblo in 1968 by North Korea did not. Their answer focused on elite opinion. Did other politicians and the media criticize the president or his policy in the immediate aftermath, or did they join in a chorus of support? The public follows its leaders, suggests this theory, which is backed by a substantial body of evidence — when elites are united, the public rallies; when elites divide, so does the public and rallies never build. Thus, while President Ford’s approval rating jumped 11 points in the days after the Mayaguez incident, the effect dissipated in the ensuing weeks as Congress and the press focused on the mission’s failings.

One other factor affecting the dimensions of rally effects is the president’s ratings just before the event. The higher a president’s ratings, the less room there is to grow. Rallies can be short-lived because most of the gains come from independents and those who identify with the political party opposite the president’s. Since a president’s own partisans already tend to be highly supportive of him, the growth mostly comes from others. And the length of the rally depends in part on the strength of the countervailing pressures that push these voters away from support for the president. A weak economy, for instance, peels independents and those of the opposite party away from the president more quickly, limiting the length of the rally. 

With elites, and all Americans, united in praising President Obama for achieving a critical foreign policy objective in brilliant fashion, and with considerable room for growth in his approval ratings, the president will likely benefit from a significant rally effect. But independents and Republicans might not stay with him very long unless the economy begins to improve — suggesting the duration of the rally is uncertain. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.