White House

War Is No Shortcut to Presidential Popularity

Trump once suggested war could boost Obama's poll numbers. That's not how it works.

Fleeting triumphs.

Photographer: Corbis via Getty Images

With Donald Trump moving more troops into Afghanistan just after lobbing bellicose bluster at North Korea, the question of how it could affect his popularity is unavoidable -- not least because he himself posed the same one about his predecessor in 2012:

I can't speak to what the president is actually thinking, if anything, about Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, or any other foreign trouble spot. But I know his approval ratings are extraordinarily low for a president in the first year of his first term, and I also know the "rally around the flag" effect is nowhere near the sure thing Trump thought it was in 2012.

The rally effect itself is real enough. At least, it can happen in response to some foreign policy incidents, although if any president were to deliberately seek it out it would represent a low-reward, high-downside risk. Political scientist Richard Brody explored the connection between presidential approval and foreign policy crises in a classic study that included presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Voters tended to rally around the president when the nation faced foreign enemies, but objective success was not enough to sway the nation. The out-party also needed to back the president's actions. 

That certainly happens, even with unpopular presidents. Republicans initially supported Jimmy Carter when hostages were taken in Iran back in 1979. But it's not very likely that it would happen for Trump, given how extraordinarily unpopular he remains among Democratic voters and Democratic elites. 1

However, even if Trump was certain he'd win the public praise of Democrats, the effects Brody observed were typically relatively small -- usually no more than 5 percentage points -- and short-lived. That may have happened with Trump after the April 7 missile strike in Syria, which coincided with what FiveThirtyEight estimates as Trump's best polling rally, from 39.8 percent approval on April 3 up to 42.4 percent on May 4. That's not much, and most of it was probably unrelated to the strike. 2 Given the risk involved -- some actions, obviously, end up hurting the president's approval ratings -- it's probably a bad idea for presidents to plan on enjoying a rally effect. 

While most rally episodes are small, there are two that triggered large ones: one for George H.W. Bush for the Gulf War of January and February 1991, and one for George W. Bush for the September 11 attacks. Both amounted to spikes of at least 30 percentage points, and they had staying power. A third big rally, for George W. Bush's launching of the Iraq War, was smaller, at around 15 percentage points, and less durable, but still worth considering.

The first President Bush was on the receiving end of the most dramatic lesson in the fleeting nature of the rally effect. His popularity moved (in the FiveThirtyEight estimate) from as low as about 52 percent approval in late 1990 to a peak of 85 percent or so in early 1991 in the wake of the Gulf War. Within a year, his approval was back below his previous low, and he was soundly defeated by Bill Clinton in November 1992. Granted, there's no way to prove whether absent the war Bush might have done even worse, but his approval in 1992 does seem to resume the downward trend he was on before the war heated up and his ratings rose. 

Most importantly, the Gulf War was just about the best possible outcome of a foreign use of force, and yet it still utterly failed to earn Bush a second term. 3 The war was quick, almost universally considered a success throughout the remainder of his presidency, and while there were casualties (146 U.S. troop deaths) they were well below original fears and certainly light for a full-blown military action against a non-trivial foe. 

The obvious danger of foreign military action is that no one can ever guarantee it will go that well, and if it doesn't it can be poisonous to a presidency -- as Harry Truman learned in Korea, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, and George W. Bush in Iraq. And those are just the ones that went bad enough to clearly show up in approval ratings. Something seemingly as risk-free as Barack Obama's intervention in Libya certainly wound up producing more trouble than he bargained for. 

The evidence is strong: War is no shortcut to presidential popularity. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. One wrinkle with Trump is that Republican members of Congress and other highly visible Republicans don't like or trust him either, but they would probably stick with him in a foreign policy crisis.

  2. How much, if any, of that small surge was caused by the missile strike? We don't, and probably can't, know; there are too many other events going on at the same time. The immediate, one-week improvement after the strike was about half a percentage point. And remember that polling averages, while more accurate than single surveys, are still subject to plenty of potential errors. 

  3. To be clear: I don't mean to say that Bush took action in Iraq in order to help his domestic political situation; I'm not aware of any account that even hints that the 1992 election was at all a part of his calculations in going to war. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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