Bin Laden rally goes by the book

Last week, forced to write about the political impact of Osama bin Laden’s killing without a single poll, I confined myself to reciting the history and theory behind rally effects — those bumps presidents get in approval in the wake of intense foreign-policy events.

History offered four hints about what would unfold:


• President Obama would get a single-digit bump.

• It would come disproportionately from Republicans and independents.

• It would be greater if there was unanimous praise for the president’s action and less if press and congressional commentary revealed divisions.

• Given the economic situation, the gains were likely to be transitory.

With data now in hand related to three of those “predictions,” they seem to be on target.

Three legitimate polls had pretty clear “before and after” measurements. Gallup recorded a 6-point increase in Obama’s approval rating, as did the Quinnipiac poll. Pew and The Washington Post put the rally at 9 points. That’s an average of 7 points, matching precisely the median increase in presidential approval Gallup has computed after 48 different crises since 1950. Another analyst, using a larger set of events, estimated the average as 3 points, while yet a third concluded that rallies rarely exceed 5 points. Suffice it so say that by every measure, Obama’s “bin Laden rally” meets or exceeds the usual magnitude of such effects.

Of course, the effect was much greater in specific policy arenas implicated in the takedown of bin Laden. Approval of the president’s handling of Afghanistan shot up by 16 points, while positive evaluations of his efforts against “terrorism” increased by 13 points in the Pew/Post Poll. Quinnipiac’s poll posted an 18-point gain on Afghanistan and an eight-point gain on foreign policy generally.

As expected, most of the gains came from Republicans and independents, because Democrats already approved of the president’s performance in overwhelming numbers. In Quinnipiac’s data, 85 percent of Democrats approved of the president’s performance before bin Laden was killed, leaving little room for growth — so among Democrats the rally effect was just 3 points. By contrast, among independents, the president’s approval rating rose by 6 points, and by 7 among Republicans. Gallup presented a similar pattern, with already high approval among Democrats not budging at all, while independents jumped 9 points and Republicans by 12. 

History suggests the rally might have been even greater were it not for some negative media reportage. While the initial reaction was uniformly positive, within a day some GOPers and the media soon tired of marking the historic milestone in the battle against terrorism, complaining instead about changing details in the accounts of bin Laden’s death. In the past, those kinds of elite divisions worked against rally effects, limiting their size and duration — an impact that was likely repeated in this case.

More significant, though, in limiting the eventual duration of this rally, are the countervailing pressures, mainly economic, exercised against independents and Republicans who are less likely to remain in the president’s corner on other grounds. Absent such cross-pressure, voters who recently moved into the approval column might well stay there for some time. But the nation’s continuing economic problems weigh heavily on them, at some point, perhaps driving them back into disapproval. 

All of which is to say that economics are fundamental, while other events are transitory. 

However, bin Laden’s death does inure to the long-term political benefit of Obama in at least one vital respect — it takes away a traditional Republican attack. For decades, Republicans have attacked Democrats as “soft” on defense — an attack that gained force following Sept. 11. It proved inadequate in 2008, but in 2012 no Republican will be able to credibly attack Obama as weak or soft — that avenue of attack has been permanently sealed off. 

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.