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.)