The big boost in approval rating after the 9/11 attacks

Immediately in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush’s approval ratings soared to above 80% or even above 90%. This was a rally-around-the-flag phenomenon.
Now, I would like to explore a few hypotheticals:

Had Al Gore been President during 9/11, would he have gotten the same jump in approval ratings? (I know some conspiracy theorists will claim that had Gore been President, there wouldn’t have been a 9/11 attack in the first place, but that’s fighting the hypothetical.)

My theory is that because Republicans have typically been perceived as being tougher on national defense, and Democrats have typically been perceived as being the more pacifist/dovish party, therefore Democrats are not as likely to have a jump in favorability in the wake of an attack because terrorist attacks are perceived to have happened because of Democratic weakness. whereas terrorist attacks are perceived to have happened in spite of Republican strength. My theory.

Second question: **Suppose there was another 9/11-sized attack on America today. Would Obama get a big jump in his approval rating? ** Or was the 9/11 jump in approval rating a one-time phenomenon, something that can only happen once and won’t happen again? What about a hypothetical President Romney?


I don’t think that was particuarly the case in 2001. Bush campaigned against military nation-building.

In the longer term, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were perceived as Democratic wars. While there were anti-war Democrats, I don’t think most people perceived them to be a majority of the party.

It depends on the response. Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks was judged to be excellent by the public for the first few months. If a President said, “We’ll get those responsible” and no further action was taken other than to inconvenience Americans in airport lines, his approval wouldn’t improve and might even deterioriate.

So if we had a 9/11-style attack here and President Obama just kept on doing what he’s doing now to fight ISIS, that wouldn’t go so well for him.

But the jump in approval rating being referred to was immediate. Just days after 9/11.

It was just rally-round-the-flag. Bush was a new president, the people didn’t yet know that what a cowardly malicious moron he was. We didn’t know that he had ignored the warning about the attack, that he was immediately planning to invade a country that had nothing to with 9/11, that he would let the perpetrator of the attack escape, or that he would have bipartisan help in destroying our economy and creating a larger threat of terrorism to the whole world.

ETA: Gore would have received the same bounce. 8 years later the country had changed and there’s no predicting what would have happened in a country that had elected Obama in 2000. If it the attack happened in 2009 the GOP establishment would have ripped into Obama but the polls would have shown a significant bump in approval anyway, but less so because so many people would think he’s a Muslim and must have been in on it.

But without the attack in 2001, would that have been a thing?

Gore wouldn’t have gotten the bounce. Democrats are fare more likely to put the country first. The republicans would have started impeachment hearings on September 12th.

I would just take a moment to point out that believing that 9/11 wouldn’t have happened under a Gore presidency doesn’t require conspiracy-mongering. I’m sure the Truthers think this, but so do rational people who think Bush was overly callous towards warnings that Bin Laden was determined to strike big in the US, and Gore might not have been.

Even if Bush had acknowledged the warnings, moving the ship of state that fast given the obstacles already in place to prevent communication between agencies would have made stopping 9/11 a matter of extreme luck even if the President had decided to focus on it.

Then there’s the fact that preventing it is irrelevant. 9/11 was not the first Al Qaeda attempt at a blockbuster attack. You stop 9/11, you just get hit later and have to go to war. It’s like “stopping” an offense with just a goalie. They just keep on kicking the ball at him. You can’t play defense without an offense.

Somebody named Clinton, might have been a president, took offensive action against bin Laden. He was accused of attempting to distract the nation from the important business of removing him from office.

Did Bill Clinton’s approval spike after the OKC bombing? Did Obama’s after Sandy Hook or the Marathon Bombing?

That was offense, but very insufficient. After a major attack, you have to step things up. Because previous attacks were thwarted or did not have as much of an impact as they’d hoped, our mentality didn’t change.

This is not really about (current) Elections, per se.
Off to Great Debates.

None of these events were as paradigm-breaking as Sept. 11th.


The spike wasn’t anywhere near as sharp as after 9/11. That’s because the emotional impact of 9/11 was extraordinarily powerful. People went on with their day after Oklahoma City, and Sandy Hook, and the other one you mentioned that killed three people. After hearing about 9/11, people went home from work early and cried. Even people in other countries cried.

Of course, most Americans still don’t know that. I know I don’t.

There were no possible good responses to 9/11, just as there was no good way to prevent it. That’s what I thought on 9/11/01, and I still think it.

I don’t see how this is relevant. It is a fact that Bush’s approval rating soared immediately after 9/11. Whether Clinton’s approval spiked after the OKC bombing or Obama’s after Sandy Hook or the Marathon Bombing doesn’t change that.

And the poll shifts were, commensurately, not so dramatic. Nevertheless, the answer in all cases is Yes.

I think the point is, Americans always rally around the President when scary shit happens–whoever he is. The scarier the shit, the bigger the rally.

Now I wonder - suppose the 9/11 attacks happened a week before Election Day instead - if a President’s approval rating spiked suddenly to 80-90% (be the President Republican or Democratic), what would the electoral outcome be? (Or, if, like Bush Senior’s 92% approval rating after the Gulf War?)
50-state sweep of the Electoral College?

Well, could be.

But, of course, there’s a view that if it hadn’t been for 9/11 Bush wouldn’t have won in 2004. And while he didn’t win in a 50-state sweep, in the end you either win the presidential election or you don’t. In the event, Bush took (I think) 31 states in 2004, but he wouldn’t have been any more president had he taken 50.

So, can the rally-round-the-flag syndrome help a sitting president if an election happens sufficciently soon after a rally-round-the-flag moment? Yes, undoubtedly.

How about Pearl Harbor? FDR’s rating went up only 11% after, Bush 35%.