Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you have most likely heard by now about the brouhaha surrounding McCain adviser and lobbyist (because apparently all McCain advisers are lobbyists) Charlie Black’s comment that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the coming months would likely help the McCain campaign. According to the article:

On national security McCain wins. We saw how that might play out early in the campaign, when one good scare, one timely reminder of the chaos lurking in the world, probably saved McCain in New Hampshire, a state he had to win to save his candidacy – this according to McCain’s chief strategist, Charlie Black. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an “unfortunate event,” says Black. “But his knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us.” As would, Black concedes with startling candor after we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. “Certainly it would be a big advantage to him,” says Black.

Black’s statement, and McCain’s relative lack of reaction to it, have been causing great consternation and discussion both in the mainstream media and here in teh internets. Keith Olbermann has covered the remark and its fallout for five nights running so far. The liberal blogosphere is all a-tizzy. People have been calling for Black to resign from McCain’s campaign, and/or for McCain to show him the door.

Some people have also been debating the accuracy of the assertion. Is it fair to say McCain wins on national security? Is he better than Barack Obama in this area? Frankly, I find that idea hard to accept, and it’s disturbing that so many in the mainstream media seem to take it as a given. I mean, the man doesn’t know Sunni from Shia, he gets confused over the fact that Iran and al Qaeda are not best buddies, and he sang “Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran” in a town hall meeting. Color me unimpressed.

But when it comes down to it, as much as it pains me to say this, whether McCain is better than Obama in any substantive way on national security matters is probably irrelevant. Because in all likelihood, Charlie Black is right on this:

McCain benefits if there is a terrorist attack in the US in the run-up to the election.

Go ahead and yell at the computer monitor for a minute if it makes you feel better, my dear non-existent readers, but then read the rest of what I have to say before you flame me in the comments that you never leave.

It all comes down to terror management theory.

I’ve written about this theory from the field of social psychology in the past, so I won’t go into a detailed explanation of it again here. See here for my original post describing some of the theory’s principles and its relevance in the political sphere (it’s a long post but it covers the basics and how they connect to the political realm generally), or click on the terror management category link in the left column of this blog.

Suffice it to say that research into the field of terror management has found that on average, people react in rather predictable ways when they are reminded of their own mortality.

Say, for instance, the way they are when there is a major terrorist attack like 9/11, or even when some Republican politician harps on 9/11 and the threat of terrorism over and over in his campaign speeches.

It’s called mortality salience by the psych researchers. Terror management research indicates that when people are put in a mortality salience condition, they are more likely to exhibit the following behaviors:

  • They become more fearful of the “other” in society, and are more willing to express racist or stereotypical viewpoints.
  • They retreat into more conservative values, and show reduced tolerance for differing views.
  • They become more likely to support authoritarian policies.
  • They become more likely to support candidates perceived as charismatic over those seen as intellectual (and by charismatic, I mean politicians who use the strength of their personality and “values”, as opposed to their positions on the substantive issues, to win voters).

Does any of this sound familiar? Say, 2004-ish?

Now look at some of the memes floating around on Faux News or in the talk radio realm and conservative blogosphere:

  • The emphasis on using Obama’s middle name (Hussein)
  • The constant “mistakes” where people say Osama when they mean Obama, or vice versa
  • The whispered rumors that Obama is really a Muslim
  • The talk of him being an elitist or a more intellectual candidate who may be “difficult for voters to relate to”

I submit to you that some people are consciously, deliberately setting Obama up as an “other” to be feared, as different, as not a real American. And I expect that the closer we get to the November election, the more frequently we will be hearing McCain and his surrogates beating the 9/11 drum, reminding us of the threat of future terrorist attacks.

They’re trying to raise mortality salience in the electorate. An actual attack on US soil, or even a very real looking threat of one that is somehow stopped, would certainly do a fine job of it.

The effect of mortality salience on a person’s behavior seems to be influenced by the strength of the stimulus that put him or her into that condition in the first place. That is, the bigger the stimulus, the greater the change in behavior as a result.

When a psychologist is conducting research in the field of terror management, there are limitations on the strength of the stimulus that can be used to put subjects into a mortality salience condition. One wouldn’t want to traumatize the research participants, after all. Thus, the people participating in the research are often just asked to think about the experience of death (e.g., death of a loved one), or to read a paragraph that talks about something related to death (people in the control condition are often asked to think about dental pain, instead). This sort of stimulus (or prime) is enough to produce statistically significant results, but generally doesn’t produce a very large effect size – that is, the difference between the control group and the experimental group in the study usually isn’t very big. Indeed, some participants’ behavior might not change measurably at all in such circumstances.

In contrast, people who have directly experienced something that reminds them of death – say, by witnessing a car bombing – may exhibit very marked changes in behavior consistent with the trends I mentioned above. People who would not be affected at all by just a spoken or written reminder of death may be deeply affected by a more traumatic experience, and changes in behavior across the population become more substantial.

Translating all of that into political terms, reminders of 9/11 and the threat of future terror attacks spoken by a political candidate or broadcast in the media probably wouldn’t change the voting behavior of a huge percentage of voters, but in a very close election, like for instance, the 2004 presidential election, it could sway enough voters to change the outcome. I am aware of at least one study that concluded that this did, in fact, happen.

In contrast, an actual terrorist attack on US soil, or even a credible one that was somehow thwarted, would probably have a much larger effect. Its impact in the voting booth could be huge.

Of course, many factors influence voters’ decisions, so it is difficult to gauge the impact of any single factor. Still, based on my reading of the research, it seems safe to infer that the bigger the boom, the bigger the change in the polling numbers.

Think I’m crazy?

Think back to the weeks and months following 9/11. A whole lot of people who were still very bitter about the 2000 election results suddenly fell into line supporting our alleged president after the attacks. American flags were flying off the store shelves. Bush’s approval rating soared, and Congress couldn’t give away our civil liberties fast enough in their desire to be seen as protecting us from the evil terrorists.

So yeah, I think Charlie Black is right. A terrorist attack on US soil would help the McCain campaign.

Would it be enough to swing the election?

That’s much harder to predict. Obviously many other events will occur between now and November that can change the two candidates’ standing in the public opinion.

And I think Obama’s campaign is focusing on some important themes that the research suggests can help counter the effects of the constant reminders of the terrorist threat that we are likely to hear from the McCain camp. Themes like the idea of Americans uniting and his faith in the strength of the American public.

Themes like hope, and change.

So I can’t say conclusively that a terrorist attack would change the results in November. But it would certainly heavily influence the levels of support for the two candidates, with McCain likely seeing a strong increase in his polling numbers.

You may think I’ve made a bad call by posting this information. Am I not giving the terrorists (or anyone else who might have an unhealthy interest in the outcome of the presidential race – say, businesses legitimate and not-so-legitimate that are making a killing in Iraq, pun very much intended) a roadmap for how to influence our elections?

I don’t think so. That ship has already sailed.

All of the research I’ve referred to here is available in any number of social psychology journals. Abstracts of all the articles I’ve read, summarizing their key findings, can be found in a number of online databases and search engines by anyone curious enough to look for them. This isn’t like publishing the designs for a nuclear device, or anything.

The bad guys aren’t stupid. They can google just as well as anyone else, I assure you.

Anyway, for those who would like to find out more, I’ve included a few references at the bottom of this post. I would post links, but the articles are all in proprietary academic databases that require a paid membership to access. Any friendly college student would probably be able to access copies of the articles from his or her school’s computers. The one book that’s listed (last item on the list) is actually available at Amazon.com.

Or just google terror management theory, and see what you come up with.

jane doe

Note: I edited this post to add the very last sentence, which was inadvertently omitted. Sorry about the multiple posts, RSS readers.


Cohen, F., Ogilvie, D. M., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T. (2005). American Roulette: The effect of reminders of death on support for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, 177-187.

Cohen, F., Solomon, S., Maxfield, M., Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (2004). Fatal attraction: The effects of mortality salience on evaluations of charismatic, task-oriented, and relationship-oriented leaders. Psychological Science, 15, 846-851.

Landau, M. J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Miller, C. H., Ogilvie, D. M, & Cook, A. (2004). Deliver us from evil: The effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1136-1150.

Pyszczynski, T. (2004). What are we so afraid of? A Terror Management Theory perspective on the politics of fear. Social Research, 71, 827-848.

Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2003). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.