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Terrorist Threat, Leadership, and the Vote: Evidence from Three Experiments


From 9/11 in the U.S. to train, subway, and airport bombings elsewhere, individuals frequently must make political decisions in the shadow of terrorist attacks. To date, few studies have examined how times of terror threat influence voters’ decision-making processes. Using data generated from three experiments we show that, in times of terrorist threat (compared to good times), individuals weight leadership more heavily in the voting booth. Our results also shed light on how much weight is given to other determinants of the vote (issues and partisanship) across these two conditions.

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  1. 1.

    For a more extended treatment of the effects of terrorist threat on authoritarian attitudes; leadership evaluations and choice; and, domestic and foreign policy preferences, see Merolla and Zechmeister (2009).

  2. 2.

    We use the terms threat and crisis interchangeably, given that Webster’s Dictionary indicates that a crisis can be “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.”

  3. 3.

    These generally have found that less sophisticated voters rely more on personal factors (Glass 1985; Miller et al. 1986) and less on issue-based considerations compared to high sophisticates (Aldrich et al. 2003; Glass 1985).

  4. 4.

    Consider, for example, the significant negative reaction the public has in economic hard times to politicians' ignorance of the price of a gallon of milk or gas.

  5. 5.

    The Fall 2004 study design and manipulation check are also reported in Merolla et al. (2007); we draw on that discussion here.

  6. 6.

    In situations of crisis, citizens may be exposed to even greater levels of media coverage than our short treatments provide; if this is the case, our design may perhaps under-estimate the effect of crisis on evaluations and behavior.

  7. 7.

    Though only a brief summary of the treatments are offered here, the texts of both treatments can be found in Merolla and Zechmeister (2009).

  8. 8.

    Druckman (2001, p. 230) discusses frames that “are not logically identical” as emphasis frames, in contrast to equivalency frames. An example is provided by Nelson and Oxley’s (1999) study of issue framing (among student subjects), in which they vary several components of the treatment (photograph, headline, quotations within the text) across two groups (e.g., environmental frame vs. economic frame). Nelson and Oxley (1999, p. 1046) argue that this type of approach is justified by a desire to increase external validity: “we have opted for greater experimental impact at the expense of some precision.” The decision to avoid equivalent wording has two purposes in our study: first, to increase external validity by mirroring actual news stories; second, to insure that those receiving the “good times” condition were not primed to consider terrorist threat (which a treatment specifically discussing a lack of terrorist threat runs the risk of doing).

  9. 9.

    To apply a strict test, our difference of means tests assume unequal variance.

  10. 10.

    We do not focus here on whether there is a link between Terror Threat and leadership evaluations themselves. Our argument that individuals will weight leadership evaluations more heavily in voting decisions in times of terror threat is independent of whether or not perceptions of the candidates’ leadership traits are affected by the threat. Nonetheless, to test for such projection effects, we ran an analysis of the effect of the Terror Threat condition and controls for partisanship on leadership evaluations. We find that the Terror Threat condition has a significant and positive effect on the Leadership Gap measure (see also Merolla and Zechmeister 2009). If we run the analysis separately by candidate, we find that the Terror Threat condition significantly decreases evaluations of Kerry and increases evaluations of Bush (though this latter effect is marginally significant).

  11. 11.

    Mean perceptions of Bush’s leadership are 2.57, while mean perceptions of Kerry’s leadership are 2.65. The values range from 1 to 4. Note, evaluations of Kerry’s leadership reflect our more left-leaning sample.

  12. 12.

    We also asked how well the following phrases described each candidate: “he is moral”; “he is intelligent”; “he really cares about people like me”; and, “he is honest”.

  13. 13.

    We found a single factor with an eigenvalue over 1.0 (the eigenvalue is 1.82) and therefore scored that factor as Issues. The factor is scored such that higher values should decrease the likelihood of voting for Bush. We drew the economic policy (spending and services), defense spending, and retrospective national economic evaluation questions directly from the ANES. The retrospective national security question mirrored the ANES retrospective national economic question, by substituting “nation’s security” in place of “the economy”.

  14. 14.

    We attempted to estimate the model with interactions between the conditions and partisanship as well, but that model had difficulty converging given high collinearity among the many interaction terms. We tried to estimate the model separately by experimental condition and separately by partisanship and still had issues with collinearity. There is not enough variation in voting behavior across partisans in different experimental conditions to estimate a conditioning effect. Thus, we only control for partisanship, rather than interact it with the experimental conditions.

  15. 15.

    This result is robust across different specifications of the model. We tested a model without the issue measure, party measure, and interactions with issues and the conditions, and the results for leadership in times of terror threat are consistent. They are also consistent in a model without interactions between the issue factor and the experimental conditions.

  16. 16.

    If we use a two-tailed instead of a one-tailed test, we find that subjects in the Status Quo condition weight leadership less than those in the Good Times condition (p = 0.069, two-tailed).

  17. 17.

    At the level where Bush receives the maximum edge on Kerry (when the Leadership Gap variable is 2.75 or higher), there is no overlap in the confidence intervals, suggesting that the effect of leadership is highly divergent across conditions at this point.

  18. 18.

    We are able to probe the generalizability of these results using ANES data. To do so, we constructed a basic vote choice model with party identification, ideology, gender, age, race, income, and leadership evaluations predicting a vote for Bush over Kerry in 2004. We then analyzed the model separately for respondents falling into each of four outcome options to the question about the likelihood of future terrorist attacks. Comparing the effect of leadership in the least likely category to the most likely category, we find that evaluations of Bush as a strong leader carry a substantially higher effect for those in the latter category (Merolla and Zechmeister 2009).

  19. 19.

    See Merolla and Zechmeister (2009) for more details on the treatments.

  20. 20.

    We again looked at whether the Terror Threat condition had any effect on leadership evaluations. We find that the Terror Threat condition has a significant and positive effect on the Leadership Gap measure (see Merolla and Zechmeister 2009 for further discussion).

  21. 21.

    Mean leadership perceptions for Schwarzenegger are 2.51, while mean leadership perceptions for Angelides are 2.24.

  22. 22.

    We do not include interest and ideology in these models since they were highly insignificant and the pattern of results remains the same.

  23. 23.

    The same results obtain if we take out the interactions with issues and partisanship, and if we take those out as well as the controls for partisanship and issue preferences.

  24. 24.

    Our analyses show that zero is contained within the confidence interval (90% level) up until the value of −1.25 on Leadership Gap among those in the Good Times condition and up until −1 among those in the Terror Threat condition. Further, there is no overlap in the confidence intervals for the two groups from the value of 0.75 on Leadership Gap until the end value of 3.

  25. 25.

    Retrieved on March 16, 2009 from

  26. 26.

    We also included an economic threat condition but do not report it here given that it is outside the scope of this paper. Our Good Times condition did not mention economic prosperity to the extent that it had in prior studies, focusing on the other types of well-being referenced in those studies.

  27. 27.

    We used a long and shorter version of each treatment but we combine them here in order to preserve as large a number of respondents as possible per condition.

  28. 28.

    A four point scale, like the one in 2004, was used.

  29. 29.

    Mean leadership perceptions for McCain are 3.06, while mean leadership perceptions for Obama are 3.15. We did not find any effect of the Terror Threat treatment on leadership perceptions for each individual or on the Leadership Gap measure, which is in contrast to the results for the 2004 and 2006 studies.

  30. 30.

    We did this primarily to reduce the number of interaction terms in the model since it leads to higher levels of collinearity, which then inflate standard errors. However, the pattern of results is similar if we include all four issue measures, ideology, and their interaction with the Terror Threat condition.

  31. 31.

    We did not include the female dummy variable in the model because it was not significant. However, the results are the same with the measure in the model. Also, the results are robust to taking out interactions with partisanship, issues and ideology.

  32. 32.

    In addition, ANES data that we analyzed and reported on here in footnotes also provides support for our arguments and, further, Berinsky (2009) examines our arguments using data from the NES panel study and demonstrates that individuals weighted leadership more heavily in their feelings toward Bush in 2002 and 2004 compared to 2000.


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For support with data collection, we thank Vanderbilt University and the Institute for Governmental Affairs and the Department of Political Science at UC-Davis. For research assistance, we thank Vincent Buffalo, Kyle Dull, Bethany Glass, Kylen Grimes, Robert Hester, Caitlin Hunter, Mason Moseley, Noelle Nasif, Emerald Nguyen, Michael Rivera, and Ryan Robison; we owe thanks as well to Carl Palmer and Jeremiah Garretson for programming and general research assistance. For voice over and recording work, we thank Andy Apodaca. We are grateful to those who gave us comments on earlier versions of this paper presented at the 2006 MPSA Meeting and at Dartmouth College. Particular thanks for feedback are owed to Adam Berinsky, Ted Brader, Darren Davis, Vince Hutchings, Cindy Kam, Rick Lau, Matt Singer, and Nick Valentino.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth J. Zechmeister.

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Merolla, J.L., Zechmeister, E.J. Terrorist Threat, Leadership, and the Vote: Evidence from Three Experiments. Polit Behav 31, 575 (2009).

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  • Candidate traits
  • Leadership
  • Threat
  • Voting behavior
  • Experiment
  • Terrorism