The Fear Factor: Why Bush Won?

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Of all the theories constructed to explain why President Bush won re-election in 2004, perhaps the most provocative is what John Judis, in a New Republic essay this week, gives a close treatment. The theory, propounded by a trio of academics, is that terrorism -- the ultimate existential threat made real -- that is, when events make individuals realize they could and will die -- changes how people make political decisions. Specifically, fearing death makes voters more willing to rally around their flag, exclude others, zero out internal contradictions, and seek the protection of leaders who exude strength.

There is actual experimental evidence to support this story.

Their experiments showed that the mere thought of one's mortality can trigger a range of emotions--from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.

This is a little more subtle that the popular sense that Americans were afraid after 9/11, so they turned inward and preferred the known (Bush) to the unknown (Kerry); the macho (Bush) to the meandering (Kerry), etc.

The in-party -- Republican political scientists, pundits and strategists often answer this most basic question of politics -- Why did President Bush win in 2004? -- with a tautology. "Because voters preferred his policies." The assumption: Bush good, Kerry bad, and that's that.

The out-party -- the Democratic political scientists, pundits and strategists -- answer the same question with a bewildering mix of often clashing theories. The Democrats weren't populist enough. They didn't frame the issues correctly. Bush stole the election. The Bush team manipulated public opinion. The Bush team scared the bejesus out of ordinary folks. Kerry was a poor candidate. Etc.

The "Worldview Defense" theory seems to fall into the latter category: a causal explanation that seeks to reassure Democrats that the fault for Bush's victory lies not in the foundation of the party but in exogenous realms that are tweakable and fixable.

To these lay ears, the most persuasive parts of the theory are in its thinnest version. In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans feared for their lives in a way they hadn't before. That fear conditioned their thinking about government and politics.

Next, they began testing Bush's appeal directly. In October 2003, the three scholars, together with five colleagues, assembled 97 undergraduates at Rutgers to participate in what the students thought was a study of the relationship between personality and politics. One group was given the mortality exercises. The other wasn't. They then read an essay expressing a "highly favorable opinion of the measures taken by President Bush with regards to 9/11 and the Iraqi conflict." It read, in part:

Personally I endorse the actions of President Bush and the members of his administration who have taken bold action in Iraq. I appreciate our President's wisdom regarding the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power and his Homeland Security Policy is a source of great comfort to me. ... We need to stand behind our President and not be distracted by citizens who are less than patriotic. Ever since the attack on our country on September 11, 2001, Mr. Bush has been a source of strength and inspiration to us all.

This was not the kind of statement that would appeal to most Rutgers undergraduates, and indeed, on average, members of the control group rated it unfavorably. But those who did the mortality exercises on balance favored the statement. In February 2004, the psychologists repeated the experiment, but this time they used September 11 cues. They had one group of students write down the emotions that September 11 aroused in them and describe what happened on that day. They got the same results as before: On average, those in the September 11 group approved of the statement, while those who didn't do the exercises disapproved. Based on political questionnaires they had the students fill out, they also found that the September 11 and mortality exercises "increased both conservatives' and liberals' liking for Bush."

Then, in late September 2004, the psychologists, along with two colleagues from Rutgers, tested whether mortality exercises influenced whom voters would support in the upcoming presidential election. They conducted the study among 131 Rutgers undergraduates who said they were registered and planned to vote in November. The control group that completed a personality survey, but did not do the mortality exercises, predictably favored Kerry by four to one. But the students who did the mortality exercises favored Bush by more than two to one. This strongly suggested that Bush's popularity was sustained by mortality reminders. The psychologists concluded in a paper published after the election that the government terror warnings, the release of Osama bin Laden's video on October 29, and the Bush campaign's reiteration of the terrorist threat (Cheney on election eve: "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again") were integral to Bush's victory over Kerry. "From a terror management perspective," they wrote, "the United States' electorate was exposed to a wide-ranging multidimensional mortality salience induction."

"Morality salience" is just a fancy way of saying that people were scared crapless about death. The repeated raising of the terror alert threats; the sudden departure of Dick Cheney to his hideouts; the preparation for the war in Iraq -- all of these factors further sensitized the electorate to the threat of terror. And the party that exploited the threat for political ends -- and here I don't mean to use the verb "exploit" in a negative way -- had a clear advantage in the battle for the independent minds. There is experimental, albeit lab-conditioned evidence to back up the theory, and it allows plenty of agency for political actors. If John Kerry had rebutted the attacks against him and convinced independents that he was the strongest candidate, he might well have won.

Psychological theories are never meant to be causal accounts of anything, though. At best, they are narrative helpers: ways to fill in the gaps that data and experience always leave.

Judis's implicit assumption is that the administration deliberately exploited these terrorism triggers precisely because they knew the electorate would respond in this way. But where does the theory account for the possibility that these independents, conditioned as they might have been, had rational reasons to believe that (a) terrorism was the salient issue of the election and (b) the Bush administration's policies were better than those of John Kerry's?

Judis spends considerable time trying to link the mortality salience theory to spate of gay marriage concerns that voters in Martingsburg, WV told him they had -- and the marriage amendments elsewhere. In this view, another effect of heightened fear of death is that traditional religious teachings hold more attraction, that permisivity and cultural diversity are conversely devalued.

But here Judis's own beliefs carry the theory a bit further than the evidence will bear. Gay marriage couldn't possibly be a real concern for these people, right? What could possibly exlain the irrational way they chose to think about two gay men marrying over their own health care? To Judis, that the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts legalizing gay marriage probably doesn't amount to a social and cultural crisis of fairly important proportions.

To many evangelical voters and conservative Democrats who don't live in urban areas, it was -- and yes, it was the smart and craven political strategy of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign to exploit and deepen those fears. Incidentally, West Virginia was one of three states where Republicans aggressively microtargeted voters on the gay marriage issue. Arkansas and Ohio were the others.

In the end, perhaps the romantic in me knows that voter agency contributes at least in part to our election results. So do, of course, the cognitive biases. What's interesting about terror management theory or mortality salience theory is accepts that voters operate consciously and unconsciously.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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