Few notions are as ingrained in political punditry as the idea that foreign crises unite Americans behind their president. It’s called the “rally ’round the flag effect” and it’s been taken as fact by commentators and chased by White Houses for decades.
But it’s also something of a political urban legend. While there are examples of presidents seeing a public approval boost during a crisis, there is also evidence that the improvements are minimal and fleeting — and perhaps getting less common in our hyperpolarized politics.
That hasn’t kept presidents from trying. On Tuesday night, President Biden used his State of the Union address to call on Congress to stand with him to condemn the invasion of Ukraine commanded by President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “He thought he could divide us here at home,” Biden said. “Putin was wrong.”
On one level, the president was right: Biden does have solid bipartisan backing for his policy of isolating Russia while backing Ukraine.
Foreign policy experts of all types have praised the administration for its deft handling of European politics, which has resulted in crippling sanctions on Russian oligarchs and financial institutions, and for its use of intelligence to expose Kremlin designs on Ukraine.
And though many questions about U.S. strategy remain unanswered, even Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said on Tuesday that there was “broad support for the president for what he’s doing now.”
But Democrats expecting voters in both parties to give Biden credit are likely hoping in vain.
“If the crisis is just fodder for the usual partisan debate, then there’s not much chance the president will see his approval rating increase much,” said John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.
The rally effect
The term “rally ’round the flag effect” was coined by John Mueller, a political scientist who studied the relationship between presidents’ actions and public opinion.
In a 1970 paper, Mueller argued that under certain conditions, many voters will shed their partisan allegiances during foreign policy crises and support the commander in chief.
The concept became conventional wisdom in the years that followed — and seemed to be borne out during conflicts like the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when President George H.W. Bush saw his approval rating zoom up.
It even inspired a movie: “Wag the Dog,” a 1997 comedy in which a cynical political operative fabricates a war in Albania to divert attention from a presidential sex scandal. The phrase “wagging the dog” has since become pundits’ shorthand for the notion that a president can distract the public from troubles back home by focusing on a conflict overseas.
More recent scholarship, however, has found the rally effect to be minimal.
In 1995, when scholars John R. Oneal and Anna Lillian Bryan crunched the numbers for 41 foreign policy crises between 1950 and 1985, they found that the average change in the president’s approval rating was just 1.4 percent. (Interestingly, one variable they tracked was coverage in The New York Times, and specifically whether the crisis made the front page.)
Since then, American politics has gotten even more polarized — meaning that voters’ views about the president are more likely to be set and approval ratings don’t bounce around as much as they once did. Donald Trump’s approval ratings were remarkably stable, for instance, despite a presidency marked by overwhelmingly negative press coverage. During his first two years in office, Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings fluctuated by 36 percentage points. Trump’s stayed within a band of 10 percentage points.
Part of what’s going on here, according to researchers who study public opinion, is that Republicans tend to stand by their own leaders, while also being predisposed to judge Democratic presidents harshly.
“Republicans have always been less inclined to rally behind a Democratic president than Democrats have been to rally behind a Republican president in times of crisis,” said Matthew Baum, a professor of global communications at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Baum has found that when a Republican is president during a foreign crisis, the average boost in approval rating among Democrats is nearly 8 percent. But when a Democrat is president, the rally effects are “smaller and insignificant,” he wrote in a 2002 paper. Those figures included George W. Bush, who experienced a 35 percentage-point boost in support after Sept. 11.
“It’s a little challenging to make the comparison for specific events, since each conflict is different,” Baum said in an email. “But the differences in rally size are pretty stark.”
And just because there’s bipartisan support for what the administration is doing to help Ukraine doesn’t mean Biden will get credit for it. As Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, told us, “Presidents are polarized even when issues and actions are not.”
Republicans aren’t rallying
Despite McConnell’s occasional words of support, other Republican lawmakers have been deeply critical of Biden’s handling of the crisis.
Those comments McConnell made? They came during a news conference in which a group of Republican senators accused the president of driving up energy prices by limiting new oil and gas leases on public lands.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said that Biden’s policies “have enabled, emboldened Vladimir Putin to do what he has done.” He added: “It’s as if Vladimir Putin were Joe Biden’s secretary of energy.”
It’s a little more complicated than that. The president has very little control over oil prices, which are set by global market forces. There is little evidence that Biden’s drilling policies have had an impact on domestic crude production, which increased by 4.4 percent in 2021.
Still, with gas prices soaring and set to go higher, you can expect energy to be a major Republican talking point as the 2022 midterm elections approach.
What the polls say
The White House has pointed to polling that shows Americans’ views on Ukraine are in sync with the president’s policies.
A CBS/YouTube poll of U.S. adults, for example, found 76 percent supported economic sanctions on Russia, 65 percent favored arming Ukraine and 63 percent wanted him to send troops to protect NATO allies.
But that didn’t translate into support for the president. That same poll showed that only 41 percent of Americans approved of his handling of Russia and Ukraine.
Other surveys are even more negative. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll published on Monday found that only 34 percent of registered voters approved, versus 49 percent who disapproved. Worse for Biden: Asked if he is a strong leader, only 32 percent said yes, while 63 percent said no.
And in a Quinnipiac University poll released on Monday, 57 percent of Americans said the administration had not been tough enough on Russia, with only 29 percent saying Biden had it about right.
All of which is to say: Not only is the war in Ukraine a humanitarian tragedy — it’s no political gift to Biden.
“We could see some sort of modest rally in public opinion but that would mainly be a result of Democratic voters coming back into the fold,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “I don’t think we’ll see much increase in support for Biden among Republican voters. The country is just too deeply polarized.”
What to read
In Texas primary, an anti-lockdown protester falls short
Shelley Luther, a Dallas salon owner who was jailed in 2020 for violating lockdown orders, lost a Texas House primary on Tuesday, showing that even within the Republican base, there are limits to the potency of Covid politics.
Luther gained national attention in the spring of 2020, when she was jailed for contempt of court after reopening her hair salon in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that nonessential businesses stay closed. Armed protesters rallied outside the salon in her defense, and national figures like Sarah Palin spoke out in support. Just two days into her seven-day sentence, she was released, thanks to Abbott himself, who retroactively revised his lockdown orders to eliminate jail time as a punishment for noncompliance.
With nearly all the votes counted, Luther won 41 percent of the vote in her race against Representative Reggie Smith, according to The Associated Press. Smith has held the seat since 2019.
At a recent candidate forum, Luther said she wanted to shift the range of views that were politically acceptable on the right, much as officials like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had done on the left. She called Abbott a “tyrant.”
Abbott easily won his nomination, despite facing multiple challengers from the right.
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