UC-Davis study links war casualties to President's approval rating
Aug. 19, 2008
UC-DAVIS — President Bush's low approval ratings may be more the result of personal experiences than of political beliefs, a recent University of California-Davis study suggests.
UCD political science professor Scott Gartner found that individuals who have experienced a personal loss in a conflict - such as the Iraq War or the 9/11 terrorist attack - are more likely to disapprove of their leader than those who have not.
"9/11 and the Iraq War represent highly personal events for those connected to the victims," Gartner said. "A social tie to a conflict's casualty transforms abstract costs into a vivid personal experience that increases the likelihood an individual disapproves of the President."
Gartner conducted his research by analyzing the results of two large public polls from 2001 and 2006 that surveyed whether an individual had ties to an Iraq War or 9/11 victim. The surveys also asked individuals about their party affiliation and whether they approved of the current administration.
In past studies, Gartner found a link between a nation's number of wartime casualties and the approval rating of its leader. Almost always, when the number of casualties spiked, the president's support level dropped accordingly.
"It is not just cumulative casualties that affect public opinion, but marginal casualties as well," said Kimberley Bellows, a senior international relations major who assisted Gartner in his research. "The number of casualties that occur within a certain time frame can be a strong determinant of how the people will react towards their leader]."
Gartner's latest study sheds light on the often-ignored issue of an individual's personal wartime experience and the strong political effect it can have.
A Duke University study found that the likelihood of having social ties to a victim of international violence is surprisingly high. A 2005 Zogby International poll that found that "over a third of the nation's adults were personally impacted by the events of 9/11."
In light of these interconnections, personal losses and the emotional responses they elicit are not necessarily restricted to the individual level, but can operate on a much more widespread scale, according to Gartner's study.
The study also found that personal connection to a conflict often overrides party loyalty.
"Though partisanship is especially strong in the Iraq War, Republicans generated similar results as those [of other political affiliation]," Gartner said.
The pattern was also consistent across economic, cultural and social lines as well.
In addition, Gartner found that disapproval of a leader due to a personal loss does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with disapproval of the event itself. For instance, those with connections to victims of 9/11 and the Iraq War can simultaneously disapprove of the president and support military action against al-Qaeda.
"The key is to recognize the difference between blame for the initiation of an event versus blame for failed protection," Gartner said. "They don't necessarily belong to the same party. Blaming the President for failing to protect someone does not restrict vengeful feelings toward the perpetrators."
Gartner said it is still not known whether a personal connection to a wartime victim is strong enough to cause a change in one's political opinion. For instance, he did not look at whether an individual who initially supported the president changed that sentiment after experiencing a personal loss as a result of the war. Gartner said that his future work will involve tracking individuals' opinions over time, and it is a question he hopes to soon answer.
In the meantime, his current finding may change the way researchers view the formulation of public opinion.
"The effects of ties to those harmed in 9/11 and the Iraq War imply that individuals' interactions, and not just their personal characteristics, influence wartime political attitudes," Gartner said. "These results suggest that the distributions of opinions in the society are determined at least partially by the social structure in a society, not simply by the demographics of its members."