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A political scientist explains why a war with Iran wouldn’t necessarily help Trump in 2020

The “rally around the flag” effect is real, but under specific circumstances.

US President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office while meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison September 20, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Back in 2011, Donald Trump tweeted that President Barack Obama might attack Iran to “help him win the election.” (Side note: There. Is. Always. A tweet.)

Knowingly or not, Trump was referencing an old idea in political science called the “rally around the flag” effect, which holds that a president benefits politically during periods of war or crisis. When the country goes to war or experiences a major catastrophe, the thinking goes, most people unite against the external threat.

In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed to 90 percent. And presidents saw similar bounces after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (John F. Kennedy) or the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 (Jimmy Carter) after American hostages were taken or even George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War in 1991.

So after President Trump’s decision to kill a key Iranian military leader, Qassem Soleimani, it’s worth asking: Will this increase his odds of winning the 2020 election? Even if we avoid an all-out war, will the threat of escalation boost his prospects?

If the “rally around the flag” effect is real, then we should expect that the answer is yes. But the reality may be more complicated than that. Political scientists Cindy Kam and Jennifer Ramos have looked closely at the data and found that there is such a phenomenon, but it depends on certain factors that may not be present in this case.

So I reached out to Kam to talk about when citizens rally around the flag and when they don’t, why a war with Iran may not benefit Trump, and how a changing media landscape has made it more difficult for presidents to galvanize the public.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

How would you describe the “rally around the flag” effect?

Cindy Kam

Political scientists have been studying this phenomenon since at least the 1970s. We think of it as the consequence of two things. One is a surge in patriotism and the second is a lack of elite criticism. The first is simple enough: When there’s an attack on the country or when the country as a whole is threatened, we circle the wagons. This is a very fundamental psychological phenomenon. When there’s a perceived threat from an out-group, the in-group unites and cooperates in ways it might not have before.

Sean Illing

We’ll get to the lack of elite criticism in a second, but first can you tell me why the benefits of this patriotism surge, at least in America, usually result in a boost to the president as opposed to just a general uptick in national solidarity?

Cindy Kam

Well, the president has always been the symbolic figurehead, the embodiment of the country. There are these amazing narratives about how George Washington served as this symbol of the founding country and the presidency has taken on that role in the past. This is just the way our political culture has evolved.

Sean Illing

Is the rallying effect a uniquely American phenomenon or is this something we find across countries and cultures?

Cindy Kam

It’s both universal and specific. It’s universal in the psychological sense. Out-group threat often triggers in-group solidarity — that’s human nature. It’s specific in the sense that we have a peculiarly strong executive.

In other countries, there are different types of institutional regimes and that changes how this effect might manifest. For instance, in a more parliamentary system, the benefits are less likely to accrue to one person at the top. But in the US, the president is at the center of our political system. We have an incredibly strong executive, and when the country is threatened, the surge in patriotism gets manifested in a surge in presidential approval.

Sean Illing

Traditionally, when we see these kinds of surges, they tend to be short-lived, right?

Cindy Kam

Yeah, even the rallying effect after 9/11, which was massive in the degree to which it rocked the country, was relatively brief.

Sean Illing

What ended it?

Cindy Kam

It ended when Democrats, and the press, became more critical of our actions in response to 9/11. Which is partly what I was hinting at earlier when I mentioned a lack of elite criticism. Once the public conversation began to change, and we saw real skepticism and criticism, the surge began to fade and politics returned to something like the status quo.

Sean Illing

What sorts of wars or crises fail to trigger a rally effect? And why?

Cindy Kam

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s one that political scientists are still wrestling over, which is how do we study the rally that didn’t happen? And I’m not sure that we have a really good sense of those non-cases because it’s very difficult to understand something that didn’t happen.

But we can compare these non-cases to events that did trigger a rallying effect and draw some preliminary conclusions. For instance, one of the key things seems to be whether or not there’s widespread public agreement about what actually happened and who is being threatened. If the country isn’t united in seeing the event as a crisis or it doesn’t agree about the nature of the threat, that likely decreases the likelihood that a rally would occur.

Sean Illing

Is there evidence that presidents pay a political price when they get involved in unpopular conflicts or are perceived as having needlessly instigated a crisis?

Cindy Kam

There are two cases that come to mind. The first is Vietnam. But of course that took someone stepping forward to provide criticism. The second is what happened after 9/11. Initially, George W. Bush received a massive surge and then, gradually, as the discussion about weapons of mass destruction evolved and the justifications for war collapsed, the landscape began to shift. The elites began to turn on Bush and then public opinion followed.

Sean Illing

Historically, the rallying effect has depended on an elite consensus, or at least a dominant media narrative about what’s happening and who’s responsible. But this kind of consensus seems impossible in the digital age, because there aren’t any controls on the flow of information and there’s an endless supply of narratives in the public space.

So we live in this highly fragmented media landscape and people are exposed to curated news feeds in a way they never have been before. Do you think that might mitigate the impact of the rallying effect?

Cindy Kam

There’s this great story in a book by Walter Lippmann called Public Opinion. He says that there’s a group of people who live on an island and they all think they’re friends and they only get mail once a month. But then one day they get their mail and discover that they’re sworn enemies, and it’s because someone told them that they were.

That’s more or less how elite opinion works. A lot of what we experience in the world outside of our immediate environments is mediated by elites, by what other people say. So yes, I think you’re onto something there. Technology has changed the pace and scope of information and the sources from which people get their information are so diverse and contradictory that it’s not clear that elites can shape opinion as effectively as they once did.

Sean Illing

Given everything we’ve said, do you expect Trump’s popularity to surge if the war with Iran continues to escalate?

Cindy Kam

If the narratives continue the way they have so far, I don’t expect his popularity to surge. I expect polarized narratives to continue to dominate, for all the reasons we’ve already mentioned. As it stands, you can go online and read that Iran represents an imminent threat to the country and therefore this attack was necessary, or you can just as easily read that this was a reckless political decision.

As long as that’s the case, as long as popular and elite discourse remains hopelessly polarized, I wouldn’t expect to see a significant rallying effect. Now it’s always possible that something different could happen, some terrible domestic attack on the scale of 9/11 or even close to that, and then we would be in a very different context. In that case, this would not simply be Trump’s war — it would be a very clear attack on Americans.

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