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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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).
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.”
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.
The Fall 2004 study design and manipulation check are also reported in Merolla et al. (2007); we draw on that discussion here.
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.
Though only a brief summary of the treatments are offered here, the texts of both treatments can be found in Merolla and Zechmeister (2009).
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).
To apply a strict test, our difference of means tests assume unequal variance.
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).
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
See Merolla and Zechmeister (2009) for more details on the treatments.
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).
Mean leadership perceptions for Schwarzenegger are 2.51, while mean leadership perceptions for Angelides are 2.24.
We do not include interest and ideology in these models since they were highly insignificant and the pattern of results remains the same.
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.
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.
Retrieved on March 16, 2009 from http://www.bigtenpoll.org/results20081023/national.html.
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.
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.
A four point scale, like the one in 2004, was used.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Abramson, P. R., Aldrich, J. H., & Rohde, D. W. (2002). Change and continuity in the 2000 elections. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Aldrich, J. H., Gronke, P., & Grynaviski, J. D. (2003). Policy, personality, and presidential performance (updated version). Paper originally delivered at the annual meeting of the midwest political science association, Palmer House Hotel, Chicago, IL, April 15–18, 1999.
Alvarez, R. M. (1997). Information and elections. Ann Arbor, MI: University Press.
Anderson, C. J. (2000). Economic voting and political context. Electoral Studies, 19, 151–170.
Bean, C., & Mughan, A. (1989). Leadership effects in parliamentary elections in Australia and Britain. American Political Science Review, 83(4), 1165–1179.
Berinsky, A. J. (2009). America at war: Understanding American public opinion from World War II to Iraq. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Bligh, M. C., Kohles, J. C., & Pillai, R. (2005). Crisis and charisma in the California recall election. Leadership, 1(3), 323–352.
Brader, T. (2005). Striking a responsive chord: How political ads motivate and persuade voters by appealing to emotions”. American Journal of Political Science, 49, 388–405.
Brader, T. (2006). Campaigning for hearts and minds: How emotional appeals in political ads work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Callaghan, K. J., & Virtanen, S. (1993). Revised models of the ‘rally phenomenon’: The case of the Carter Presidency. Journal of Politics, 55(3), 756–764.
Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Campbell, D. T., & Stanley, J. C. (1963). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for research. Chicago: Rand McNally.
Cheibub, J. A., & Przeworski, A. (1999). Democracy, elections, and accountability for economic outcomes. In A. Przeworski, S. C. Stokes, & B. Manin (Eds.), Chapter 7 of democracy, accountability, and representation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Chong, D., & Druckman, J. N. (2007). Framing theory. Annual Review of Political Science, 10, 103–126.
Davis, D. W., & Silver, B. D. (2004a). Civil liberties vs. security: Public opinion in the context of the terrorist attacks on America. American Journal of Political Science, 48(1), 28–46.
Davis, D. W., & Silver, B. D. (2004b). The threat of terrorism, presidential approval, and the 2004 Election. Paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, September 2–5.
Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.
Druckman, J. N. (2001). The implications of framing effects for citizen competence. Political Behavior, 23(3), 225–256.
Funk, C. L. (1997). Implications of political expertise in candidate trait evaluations. Political Research Quarterly, 50(3), 675–697.
Funk, C. L. (1999). Bringing the candidate into models of candidate evaluation. Journal of Politics, 61(3), 700–720.
Gadarian, S. K. (2008). The politics of threat: Terrorism, media, and foreign policy opinion. Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University.
Glass, D. P. (1985). Evaluating presidential candidates: Who focuses on their personal attributes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 49(4), 517–534.
Gomez, B. T., & Wilson, J. M. (2001). Political sophistication and economic voting in the American electorate: A theory of heterogeneous attribution. American Journal of Political Science, 4, 899–914.
Huddy, L., Feldman, S., Taber, C., & Lahav, G. (2005). Threat, anxiety, and support of antiterrorism policies. American Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 593–608.
Huddy, L., Khatib, N., & Capelos, T. (2002). The polls—trends: Reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Public Opinion Quarterly, 66(3), 418–450.
Hunt, J. G., Boal, K. B., & Dodge, G. E. (1999). The effects of visionary and crisis-responsive charisma on followers: An experimental examination of two kinds of charismatic leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 10(3), 423–448.
Kahn, K. F., & Kenney, P. J. (1997). A model of candidate evaluations in Senate elections: The impact of campaign intensity. Journal of Politics, 59(4), 1173–1205.
Kam, C. D., & Franzese, R. J., Jr. (2007). Modeling and interpreting interaction hypotheses in regression analysis. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.
Kam, C. D., Wilking, J. R., & Zechmeister, E. J. (2007). Beyond the ‘narrow data base’: another convenience sample for experimental research. Political Behavior, 29, 415–440.
Kinder, D. R. (1986). Presidential character revisited. In R. R. Lau & D. O. Sears (Eds.), Political cognition: The 19th annual Carnegie symposium on cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
King, G., Tomz, M., & Wittenberg, J. (2000). Making the most of statistical analyses: Improving interpretation and presentation. American Journal of Political Science, 44(2), 347–361.
Kirkpatrick, S. A., & Locke, E. A. (1996). Direct and indirect effects of three core charismatic leadership components on performance and attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(1), 36–51.
Krause, G. A. (1997). Voters, information heterogeneity, and the dynamics of aggregate economic expectations. American Journal of Political Science, 41(4), 1170–1200.
Landau, M. J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., et al. (2004). Deliver us from evil: The effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1136–1150.
MacKuen, M. A. (1983). Political drama, economic conditions, and the dynamics of presidential popularity. American Journal of Political Science, 27(2), 168.
Madsen, D., & Snow, P. G. (1991). The charismatic bond: Political behavior in time of crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Marcus, G. E., Neuman, W. R., & MacKuen, M. (2000). Affective intelligence and political judgment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Markus, G. B. (1982). Political attitudes during an election year: A report on the 1980 NES panel study. American Political Science Review, 76, 538–560.
McCurley, C., & Mondak, J. J. (1995). Inspected by #1184063113: The influence of incumbents’ competence and integrity in U.S. House elections. American Journal of Political Science, 39(4), 864–885.
Mendelsohn, M. (1996). The media and interpersonal communications: The priming of issues, leaders and party identification. Journal of Politics, 58(1), 112–125.
Merolla, J. L., Ramos, J. M., & Zechmeister, E. J. (2007). Crisis, charisma, and consequences: Evidence from the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Journal of Politics, 69(1), 30–42.
Merolla, J. L., & Zechmeister, E. J. (2009). Democracy at risk: How terrorist threats affect the public. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Miller, A. H., & Miller, W. E. (1976). Ideology in the 1972 election: Myth or reality—a rejoinder. American Political Science Review, 70(3), 832–849.
Miller, W. E., & Shanks, J. M. (1996). The new American voter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Miller, A. H., Wattenberg, M. P., & Malanchuk, O. (1986). Schematic assessments of presidential candidates. American Political Science Review, 80(2), 521–540.
Morgenstern, S., & Zechmeister, E. (2001). Better the devil you know than the saint you don’t? Risk propensity and vote choice in Mexico. Journal of Politics, 63(1), 93–119.
Morin, R., & Balz, D. (2004, October 19). Bush retains a slim lead in poll. Washington Post. Accessed January 4, 2005, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A42984-2004Oct18?language=printer.
Mueller, J. (1970). Presidential popularity from Truman to Johnson. American Political Science Review, 64(1), 18–34.
Mueller, J. (1973). War, presidents, and public opinion. New York: Wiley.
Mutz, D. C. (1992). Mass media and the depoliticization of personal experience. American Journal of Political Science, 36(2), 483–508.
Nelson, T. E., & Oxley, Z. M. (1999). Issue framing effects on belief importance and opinion. Journal of Politics, 61(4), 1040–1067.
Nie, N. H., Verba, S., & Petrocik, J. R. (1976). The changing American voter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Page, B. I., & Brody, R. A. (1972). Policy voting and the electoral process: The Vietnam issue. American Political Science Review, 66(3), 979–988.
Powell, G. B., Jr., & Whitten, G. D. (1993). A cross-national analysis of economic voting: Taking account of the political context. American Journal of Political Science, 37, 391–414.
Pyszczynski, T. A., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2002). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Rahn, W. M., Aldrich, J. H., Borgida, E., & Sullivan, J. L. (1990). A social-cognitive model of candidate appraisal. In J. Ferejohn & J. Kuklinski (Eds.), Information and democratic processes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Sniderman, P. M., Brody, R. A., & Tetlock, P. E. (1991). Reasoning and choice: Explorations in political psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Stewart, M. C., & Clarke, H. D. (1992). The (un)importance of party leaders: Leader images and party choice in the 1987 British election. Journal of Politics, 54(2), 447–470.
Tomz, M., Wittenberg, J., & King, G. (2001). CLARIFY: Software for interpreting and presenting statistical results. Version 2.0. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, from http://gking.harvard.edu [software on-line].
Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of Positive and Negative Affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063–1070.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Merolla, J.L., Zechmeister, E.J. Terrorist Threat, Leadership, and the Vote: Evidence from Three Experiments. Polit Behav 31, 575 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-009-9091-3
- Candidate traits
- Voting behavior