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‘Rally Around The Flag’ Events Are Rare

President Obama laid out a four-point plan this week to go after ISIS. His speech was immediately fed through the political meat grinder and picked apart for possible effects on the 2014 midterm elections. Democrats may be hoping for a “rally around the flag” effect, but such spikes in a president’s popularity are rare.

According to research by William Baker of the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences and John Oneal of the University of Alabama, only 65 of 167 military actions by the U.S. between 1933 and 1993 led to any increase in the president’s approval rating. By looking at “a set of interactions between or among states involving threats to use military force, displays of military force or actual uses of military force,” Baker and Oneal found the average increase in the president’s approval rating was just 0.1 percentage points.

Obama’s presidency has included a number of potential “rally around the flag” moments that never materialized, including the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009 and toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Not one of these saw the president’s approval rating change, according to data compiled by Jocelyn Norman at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. The only event that helped Obama’s approval was the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the rally lasted only about a month.

So, what circumstances provide the best chance for a rally effect? Baker and Oneal’s work, along with separate papers by professors Terrence Chapman at the University of Texas at Austin and Dan Reiter at Emory University, Matthew Baum at UCLA, and J. Tyson Chatagnier at the University of Rochester provide some necessary context.

  1. Americans tend to react with greater enthusiasm when there is bipartisan support for an action.
  2. Americans tend to give the president a boost when he’s acting against a major power.
  3. Americans seem to respond more positively when the U.N. Security Council gives its approval to a foreign endeavor.
  4. Americans are more likely to warm toward the president when there are revisionist goals at stake (pushing Iraq out of Kuwait, for example).
  5. Americans are more likely to rally behind a president at the beginning of his presidency.

It’s hard to say how much each of these apply to the fight against ISIS. Is ISIS a “major power”? It’s not like the examples of major powers cited in the paper (Germany, France, the USSR), but terrorist groups like ISIS don’t really even fall in that rubric.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is that two factors that often occur after a rally around the flag also seem to help in its development: high economic confidence and trust in government. That is, people are more likely to raise their support when they think things are going well. Right now, Gallup has economic confidence stagnant in the -10s (on a scale from -100 to 100). Trust in government, meanwhile, is near a 50-year low, according to Pew Research Center.

There are, however, two things that are currently working in favor of a rally around the flag event: Obama’s low approval rating and the White House’s public relations focus on ISIS. Because Obama’s approval rating is low, he has more room to grow. And the administration seems more willing to make a big deal out of going after ISIS. In the past, both White House statements and low approval have been correlated with a rise in the president’s approval in foreign entanglements.

On balance, the factors that usually lead to a boost to a president’s approval rating don’t seem to be in effect here, though a few are. Of course, the different variables may interact differently than previously. To determine what, if any, impact Obama’s four-point plan has, we’ll have to wait and see.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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