Osama bin Laden and Public Opinion

I was asked by a journalist earlier today what I thought the effect of bin Laden’s death would be on US public opinion. My gut feeling was that it might turn out to bit of a game-changer in terms of opinion regarding the ability of the Democratic party to handle issues related to terrorism, perhaps because of it could supplant memories of the bungled attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran during the Carter administration. After all, this has been the goal of US foreign policy for almost a decade now, and to pull this off so seamlessly – especially given the lack of any US casualties – may turn out to leave a lasting impression on Americans.

However, I also have the added advantage of having Professor Patrick Egan—who studies issue ownership—as a colleague, so I put the question to him as well. His response:

This is the kind of event that happens only every once in awhile: elites from both parties praise action taken on an issue by the party that does not “own” the issue. What we’ve seen taking place after similar events in the past is a significant but only temporary dip in the reputation advantage held on the issue by the owning party.

As an illustration, consider the issue of education, where the parties’ issue reputations are in reverse. Compiling poll results from the past two decades, I estimate the long-run advantage held by the Democrats on education (controlling for any concurrent general sentiment toward the two parties) to be about six percentage points on average. As shown in the figure below, the passage of Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2001 (with the imprimatur of liberals like Ted Kennedy) caused a significant dip in the extent to which the public trusted the Democrats more than the Republicans to handle the education issue. But this change was temporary: by the end of Bush’s first term, the Democrats’ advantage was back to its equilibrium level. That’s my best guess about what will happen with regard to the Republicans’ reputation advantage on terrorism in the wake of the killing of bin Laden.

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For those interested in global public opinion towards bin Laden in recent years, this recent Pew Research report may be of interest; here’s the take-away:

In the weeks leading up to Osama bin Laden’s death, a survey of Muslim publics around the world found little support for the al Qaeda leader. Among the six predominantly Muslim nations surveyed by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, bin Laden received his highest level of support in the Palestinian territories – although even there only 34% said they had confidence in the terrorist leader to do the right thing in world affairs. Minorities of Muslims in Indonesia (25%), Egypt (22%) and Jordan (13%) also expressed confidence in bin Laden, while he has almost no support among Turkish (3%) or Lebanese Muslims (1%). In Pakistan, where 2011 data is still not available, confidence in bin Laden fell from 52% in 2005 to just 18% in last year’s survey.

And here are some figures:

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[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.