Robb Willer and Nick Adams, research scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a field experiment to test whether concerns about terrorism affect the way Americans view the 2008 presidential candidates and how an event that increases the prominence of terrorism, like a threat or attack, would affect the 2008 election.
Since 9/11, research has linked the threat of terrorism with support for President Bush. For example, an analysis by Willer in 2004 showed that government issued- terror warnings were followed by increases in Bush’s Gallup approval level between 2001 and 2004. In 2006, the effect of media reports indicating a high threat of terrorist attack (e.g., video tapes of Osama Bin Laden, public pronouncements of risk by U.S. administration officials, and changes to the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded Threat Level) showed that both increased fear of terrorist attacks and support for Bush.
This time around, the researchers find that exposure to terror threats increased concerns about “homeland security” without affecting candidate preferences. However, their analysis of politically moderate respondents with a high rate of undecided, likely voters – 40% of the total sample – showed that this group expressed significantly lower support for Senator John McCain when exposed to the terror threat than in the control condition.