Terrorism fears no longer helping Bush, study finds

August 12, 2004


A new study reveals a surprising twist on the conventional wisdom about November's presidential election: While political pundits seem to agree that news of terrorist threats and other dangers from abroad is good news for President Bush's re-election bid, the opposite might be true.

Michigan State University political science professors Darren W. Davis and Brian D. Silver say their study found that the more worried people are about the possibility of another terrorist attack, the more likely they are to vote for John Kerry. The research will be presented at a meeting of political scientists in Chicago next month.

The professors have been tracking Americans' attitudes about politics, civil liberties and security in a series of national and Michigan-wide surveys since 2001.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they found that people who expressed greater concern about threats of future terrorism were more likely to approve of Bush's presidential performance, while those who were less worried were less likely to support the president.

But by spring 2004, "this relationship had reversed: Those who were more concerned about terrorism were less likely to approve of Bush's performance," the professors say in their report.

And, the professors say, that trend is influencing how people plan to vote in the November election.

The two researchers' most recent survey, conducted in Michigan from April 19 to June 15, indicates that 24 percent of respondents -- a sampling of Michigan residents statistically weighted to reflect the adult U.S. population -- were "very concerned" about the possibility of another terrorist attack and 44 percent were "somewhat concerned."

When respondents were asked how they planned to vote in the November election, a narrow majority -- 51 percent -- said they would vote for Bush.

Davis and Silver then examined the respondents' voting preferences and how they related to the respondents' levels of concern about terrorism. Of those who were "very concerned," 38 percent said they planned to vote to re-elect President Bush, while 76 percent of those who were "not at all concerned" said they would vote for Bush.

Americans' concern about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the United States has generally declined over the last three years, from 85 percent of Americans surveyed between November 2001 and January 2002 saying they were either very or somewhat concerned to 68 percent reporting those levels of concern in a survey conducted from April to June 2004.

Terror concerns have increased sharply only twice since 2001, around the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and during the invasion of Iraq. Both times, Davis and Silver's research showed -- and other national surveys agreed -- that the heightened concern was accompanied by increased approval of Bush's performance in office.

In the most recent Michigan State survey, however, increased concern was no longer linked to increased approval of Bush's performance. Davis and Silver found that among those who are very concerned about another attack, just 29 percent approve of Bush. But among people who say they are not at all concerned about another attack, the president's approval rating is 30 points higher: 59 percent.

Davis and Silver will present their findings in detail at the Sept. 2 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association being held in Chicago.

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