Do presidents get a public opinion boost from conflict?

Published 5:01 pm Friday, November 16, 2018

President Trump gets involved in a war of words with North Korea’s leader.  A few months later, he’s having a friendly meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Do American presidents get a bounce in the polls from conflictual remarks and actions?

My undergraduate students researched this topic in a class project, analyzing cases of fighting and peace, from President George H. W. Bush to President Donald J. Trump.  Our students researched the diversionary theory of war, something covered not only by scholarly journals and books, but something movies like “Wag the Dog” and “Canadian Bacon” covered.  Presidents are alleged to wage war to get a burst of patriotism. 

But a local non-traditional undergraduate speculated that we should look at cases of public opinion on peace as well, something nobody in political science ever did. Katie Still gets the credit for coining the term “Diversionary Theory of Peace.”

So we researched 44 cases from 1989 to 2018, 19 of which were conflict based and 25 were examples where the U.S. negotiated with an adversary or mediated an attempt to end a fight between two other groups that fight (like North Irish Protestants and Catholics, or Israel vs Palestinians).  The students look at the weekly Gallup polls, one before the event and one afterwards (though in a separate study, they looked at three poll averages before and after).

Believe it or not, the students found that presidents don’t get much of a boost from conflict overall (10 poll increases, and nine that resulted in zero or negative surveys).  For cooperation, it’s not really better (12 poll increases, five unchanged, and eight declines), with an average poll bounce of less than 0.125 percent for both categories, hardly a blip. 

GOP presidents get a slightly better bounce from foreign policy actions (2.2 percent average increase) than Democrats do (1 percent average increase), though Democrats are more likely to go up (11 cases up, 4 unchanged, 6 cases down) than Republicans (11 up, 5 unchanged, 7 down).

But the biggest shocker came from the timing of the cases. In cases of conflict before 9/11, presidents could average of a five percentage point increase, with five cases of approval ratings increase, two remaining the same and one declining).  Peace cases before 9/11 also got a bounce, an average of three percentage points (as well as eight cases of poll jumps, two unchanged, two declines).  But after 9/11, conflict polls only increase 0.3 percent, with peace getting a decline of 0.3 percent points, not even a one percent increase.

Why is this the case? Are we more cynical after 2001? Do we care less about foreign affairs?  Or does our 24-hour news cycle and social media keep us so well informed that the moment an event happens seem anticlimactic? It’s unclear so far.

My undergraduate students didn’t just work on this in class, or in their dorms.  They also went down to the Georgia Political Science Association conference in Savannah, Georgia, among professors and graduate students, to positive reviews from attendees.  If you’re interested in doing this kind of research, or have a son or daughter who would be, we would be happy to have them join our team at LaGrange College.

Undergraduates Robert Allen, David Apiag, John Mitchell Benton, Thomas Bird, Crispin Cuttino, Lindsay Estes, Austin Fain, Correy Farrow, La’Kel Hood, Jamaniac Joiner, Bryan Jones, Zach Lee, Michael Menhart, Jessica Noles, Wade Ray, Damir Rosencrants, Katie Still, Jason Timms, Andrew Valbuena, Kameron White and Ronald Youngblood contributed to the research and statistics.