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Study: Terror Warnings Up Approval Ratings

Associated Press | October 27 2004

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- When the government issues a terror warning, the president's approval rating increases an average of nearly three points, a Cornell University sociologist says.

"The social theories predict it, and anecdotally we know it to be true. Now we have statistical science to confirm it," said Robb Willer, assistant director of Cornell's Sociology and Small Groups Laboratory.

On average, a terror warning prompted a 2.75 point increase in President George Bush's approval rating the following week, said Willer, who published his study in Current Research in Social Psychology, a peer-reviewed online journal.

Robert Greene, a professor of history and communication at Cazenovia College, said he did not doubt the correlation, but considered the small increase barely noteworthy.

"And I would think any benefit would be very temporary. Americans like crises to be solved," said Greene.

Willer said he took up his study in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after watching Bush's approval rating soar from 51 percent on Sept. 10 to 86 percent five days later.

Willer tracked the 26 times that a federal agency reported an increased threat of terrorist activity -- not just changes in the alert level -- between February 2001 and May 2004. He compared that with the 131 Gallup Polls conducted during the same period.

"From the perspective of social identity theory, threats of attacks from foreigners increase solidarity and in-group identification among Americans, including feelings of stronger solidarity with their leadership," he said.

Terror warnings increased presidential approval ratings "consistently," Willer said. However, he said he was unable to measure how long the increase lasted.

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