Will Fear of Death Give Obama a New Lease on Life?

Terrorism long gave Republican candidates a boost. Will catastrophic storms like Sandy become a Democratic advantage?

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For years, political psychologists have been pondering the influence of reminders of death on citizens' attitudes and election results. One model is that reminders of the possibility of our own death, especially after September 11 and other terrorist attacks, push voters toward candidates perceived as more authoritative. While the evolutionary roots of the phenomenon and the role of the fear of death have been questioned, the effect itself appears strong. Even some prominent liberal academics have accepted this view. Thus Cass Sunstein, a professor of law at Harvard and until August administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote in a blog post in 2006 while at the University of Chicago:

Democrats would like to think that the situation is very different now from what it was in 2004, and that the issue of terrorism may even work in their favor. With the war in Iraq apparently going badly, perhaps a reminder of the September 11 attacks no longer has the effect that it had even two years ago. It's possible, but there is reason for doubt. There has been no successful attack on the United States in the last five years, and it remains true that Republican candidates have been able to project greater firmness, aggression, and resolve. If the 2004 data predict behavior, nontrivial numbers of undecided, moderate, and even liberal voters will be moved in the Republican direction by any news about terrorism -- whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. The electoral results in 2006 and 2008 will depend, in large part, on whether the underlying dynamics are changed.

Two years later the 2008 election, in which a candidate with no military record defeated an older authority figure with an undisputed record of wartime heroism, seemed to suggest at the very least that economic anger and fear -- even in the absence of many identifiable deaths -- trumped existential anxiety. How well has the mortality salience theory held up? If we judge from the best single barometer of political chances, the Iowa Electronic Markets (I've argued for this status here) neither the May 2012 killing of Osama bin Laden nor the September 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, produced a marked change in odds like the decline of President Obama's chances after the first debate. (Day-by-day numbers are available on the IEM site.)

There has been a significant improvement in Obama's chances against Romney in the IEM since Superstorm Sandy made landfall on October 29, resulting in at least known 110 deaths by now, from closing ratios of 62-38 on October 28 to 69-28 at the end of Thursday, November 1, on the eve of the employment report. (They don't add up to 100 because contracts on each candidate's chances are sold independently.)

The president's further boost after Sandy isn't due just to the perception that he and his administration have performed well. It also may reflect a bipartisan tendency of voters to choose the security of a known incumbent against a challenger. It would have worked just as strongly for a Republican, although it's worth nothing that the engineer, entrepreneur, and technocrat Herbert Hoover made his reputation as a "master of emergencies" and in many ways still has the most impressive pre-White House managerial CV of any American president. The historian David Welky, in his excellent recent book The Thousand-Year Flood, on the Mississippi-Ohio crisis of 1937 (which I reviewed here), criticizes missed opportunities but reminds Republicans and Democrats alike what an immediate political success Franklin Roosevelt's flood control policies proved to be in terms of helping to legitimize the big government that Mr. Romney deplores:

Although previous administrations had put charities and local groups in charge of relief and rehabilitation matters, Franklin Roosevelt's New  Deal placed federal authorities at the center of national affairs. Americans now looked to their president rather than to a governor or mayor. Administration officials saw the flood as an opportunity to showcase their philosophy of government.

We might even turn around the famous 1970s remark of the Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo that a conservative is a liberal who was mugged the night before. Perhaps a big-government fan is a classical liberal waiting in the cold and dark for the power to come back on. 

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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