Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, it has been an article of faith that the terrorism issue works to the huge political benefit of President Bush and to the disadvantage of the Democrats. As a consequence, some Democratic stalwarts privately wonder whether administration officials might spring a late October surprise in the form of an orange alert in order to help President Bush win reelection.
Such cynicism! But a warning to GOP partisans who want to play politics with the terrorism warning system: It likely will backfire. Raising the threat level to orange will not help Bush and, if anything, is more likely to benefit Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, say political scientists Darren W. Davis and Brian D. Silver of Michigan State University.
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"A sense of threat does matter, and it works against Bush," they argue in a paper they are presenting this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Chicago.
They base their assertions on two national surveys and 11 state polls conducted in Michigan since 9/11. Each of these surveys took weeks to complete, allowing researchers to test the impact, if any, of five orange alerts issued by the federal government during the survey periods, and to assess the impact of the terrorism issue on the 2004 presidential campaign.
Their work turned up some good news for terrorism czar Tom Ridge and his staff. The much-maligned color-coded alert system appears to be working. Alerts "significantly increase the level of public concern about terrorism within six days of the [warning]. . . . The results do suggest that the warnings do achieve the intended effect of increasing public alertness to the possibility of terrorist attack," they wrote.
Moreover, the last two terrorism alerts generated even more concern than earlier ones, suggesting that "the public has not become jaded because the government is perceived as having 'cried wolf' on earlier occasions."
But their research flashes an orange warning signal to the Bush reelection team. "Terror alerts have no effect on approval of Bush, though they do raise people's concern about terrorism," they found.
In fact, they claim that concern about terrorism may have subtly shifted from being a Bush advantage to a Bush liability. Immediately after 9/11, overwhelming numbers of those most worried about another terrorist attack were more likely to approve of the job that Bush was doing as president. Today, that has flipped: In the latest Michigan statewide survey, completed in June, 64 percent of those who were "not at all concerned" about terrorism approved of the job Bush was doing as president. But among those who were "very concerned" about the possibility of another terrorist attack, only 26 percent thought the president was doing a good job -- a switch in sentiment that Silver said he and Davis found in other recent state and national polls.
Other research suggests that references to 9/11 still work to Bush's advantage. Silver said a study by a group of University of Arizona researchers found that showing test subjects photos of scenes from 9/11 increased support for Bush and diminished support for Kerry among test subjects.
But that's about then. When the subject turns to current or future terrorist threats, Bush likely is in trouble, Silver said.
"If I were Bush, I would be very careful not to bring this into the present tense," Silver said. Instead, he should "focus on the past, at least back to 2001 and keep talking about the two new democracies that were in the Olympic games."
One reason fear of terrorism has gone from being good for Bush to bad is that "people have become more likely to see the persistence of the threat as the product of the administration," a negative. Add to that the critical findings of the 9/11 commission and the bloody aftermath of the war in Iraq, and the perception may be growing that we are less, not more, safe than we were before Sept. 11, 2001.
As for Kerry, he shouldn't be shy about talking about the current terrorist threats. "Bring it on," should be his war cry when it comes to the war on terrorism, Silver said.
When you're in a bar, be careful what you say to the guy with one ear larger than the other, say researchers at Ohio State University who found that people with different-size ears or other body parts are more aggressive and easier to anger than other people.