The Fear Factor: Why Bush Won?

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."

Presented by

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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