How Americans grade their presidents in an international crisis

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2020

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Since the arrival of COVID-19 from China to America’s shores, political pundits have been obsessed with President Trump’s polls, along with speculation about whether this international crisis will help or hurt his reelection prospects.

But these analysts haven’t always provided much history or data. My students and I researched both, showing that our theories on presidents, polls and world crises need a lot of improvement.

This semester, my students looked at the diversionary theory of conflict in my international politics class. Scholars studying this theory assume that presidents wage conflict to boost their approval ratings. And academics also claim that there’s a “Rally ‘round the flag effect,” where the American people provide a patriotic boost in the polls which applies whether the president’s crisis response is successful or not.

In prior years, my students examined crisis cases from Carter to Trump. They’ve published columns on the subject, and presented the data at academic conferences. And when we couldn’t do our Model UN with local schools, they agreed to analyze 21 earlier cases, from President Lyndon B. Johnson to President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford.

Our students gathered Gallup polling data on 21 cases. But they also learned a little history in the process, as I had them explain what happened in U.S. foreign policy from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. My students learned about the cruelty of the North Korean communist regime, which shot down (unprovoked) an EC-121 plane in the Sea of Japan, and had its cadres slaughter American G.I.s who had permission to cut down trees in the Demilitarized Zone.

Unlike most studies on the diversionary theory and rally effect, we didn’t just look at conflicts, thanks to a suggestion from a undergraduate last year. Our students and I also covered tense superpower summits with the Soviet Union, and negotiation attempts to end to the Vietnam War.

We found that in 21 cases, presidents declined in the polls in 11 of them, with five of them representing big declines of six or more points. The capture of the USS Pueblo, the Tet Offensive, the Christmas Bombings of North Vietnam in 1972 (after peace talks broke down), and negotiations with the USSR in Vladivostok and Helsinki, where summits failed or accepted the status quo. Failure is not an option for U.S. citizens, who punish presidents at the polls, a finding at odds with some scholars who anticipate a boost for presidents in the wake of a crisis.

But among the 10 bumps in approval ratings (six of six points or more), we found these occurred with the successful Dominican Republic mission that ended a civil war and led to democracy, the measured responses to North Korean militarism, the SALT I Treaty with the Soviets, and the eventual conclusion of the Vietnam War. Even the failures of Mayaguez were welcomed, perhaps because American sailors were released, and the aggressive response to Cambodia’s belligerent actions offset the tragic loss of lives of our U.S. servicemen in that rescue attempt. Americans are more willing to reward presidents who get the job done, even if done imperfectly.

In contrast to the scholarship in the field, we found that not all diversionary attempts involve conflict, and not even half of all crises produce a nationalistic rally. And even such bumps in approval ratings from international crises are temporary, as Ford found after Mayaguez, when his 11-point jump inched back down to pre-crisis levels in just a few weeks. This is valuable information for studies of President Trump and evaluations of his response to the coronavirus.

There’s more to analyze over the summer and fall, but there’s another lesson my students learned. It’s about the value of data collection and historical research, which can be adapted to an online format even as COVID-19 robbed us of in-person interactions. These class activities have been cited by our graduates who go on to the private sector, government, law school or graduate school as helping them prepare for the challenges beyond LaGrange College.

— Tures’ researchers for this column were Caleb Tyler, Len Spivey, Sam Shaw, Errick Strum, Sam Rogers, Jalen Morgan, Brennan Oates, Zac Hill, Andrue Davis, Jalen Trice, Shedrick Lindsey, Madison Demkowski, Nia Johnson, Jessica Moore, Jacob Jeffords, Shawn Bailey, Jake Thrailkill, Tamino Schoeffer, and Austin Garner, all from LaGrange College.