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Has 9/11 Had a Lasting Impact on How People Choose a President?

September 11, 2008 By:
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In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 -- by far, the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history -- a palpable sense arose that so many things had changed irrevocably.

But, when it comes to national elections and partisan politics, has the memory of that event created a lasting effect that's altered the rules of the electoral game? Or does the return this year of bread-and-butter issues, like gas prices and jobs, as priority concerns for voters represent a political normalization of sorts?

"Nothing changes everything forever," noted Michael G. Haden, political science professor at Temple University and co-author of the forthcoming book The Presidential Campaign of 2000 and the Foundations of Party Politics. "Yet Sept. 11 has created an enduring sense of vulnerability that is unusual for Americans."

Haden said that the debate over which candidate and party are best suited to combat terrorism remains a major issue in this election, as evidenced by the sizable portions of both the Republican and Democratic national conventions given over to highlighting the candidates' qualifications in this realm.

Still, the political scientist acknowledged, terrorism and the Iraq war no longer top the national agenda, as they did in 2004.

According to Gallup Poll results released on June 27 pertaining to American attitudes to core issues, 56 percent of respondents said they'd pick a candidate whose greatest strength would be fixing the economy. On the flip side, just 39 percent said they'd prefer a leader whose strength was military expertise.

Yet, according to a separate Gallup Poll released almost exactly one year ago, on the sixth anniversary of the attacks, 71 percent of American adults described 9/11 as the most memorable news event of their life. The poll also reported that 50 percent of Americans believe the attacks changed the way they live.

These results suggest that deciphering the impact of such a shocking and monumental event on politics remains difficult.

"The further we move away from 9/11, the more secure and comfortable Americans feel, and the less national security resonates as an issue," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. "The irony here is that for President Bush, on his watch, we haven't been attacked again. But the longer we go from 9/11, the more it works against Republicans."

The New York Times calculated that, over the course of the Democratic National Convention, speakers used the words "terrorism" or "terrorist" an average of eight times per day, down from 29 in 2004 in Boston. Several speakers, including former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, invoked September 11; he said America had failed many of the challenges posed by that event, including the need to reduce consumption of foreign oil.

Speaking by satellite to the Republican National Convention, Bush referred to the date.

"We live in a dangerous world," he said. "And we need a president who understands the lessons of September 11, 2001 -- that to protect America, we must stay on the offensive, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again."

In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Sept. 11 attacks had an immediate impact on American public opinion. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, in the aftermath of the attacks, American favorability toward Israel rose from 40 percent to about 45 percent, while favorability toward the Palestinians fell from 17 percent to about 12 percent.

But the effect of Sept. 11 doesn't seem to be long-term in this instance. Favorability toward Israel has risen and fallen a few times since then, but overall, it's ranged from 40 percent to 50 percent, where it's remained for the most part since 1967, according to a 2007 Pew report.

Several political researchers said that it has become impossible to discuss Sept. 11 without discussing subsequent events, especially the war in Iraq.

"My belief is that Bush would not have been re-elected without 9/11. He would have met the same fate as the three other presidents who had won the office despite losing the popular vote," Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, wrote in an e-mail. "But the Iraq War has dramatically revised our outlook. Despite the success of the surge, the public thinks that Iraq was not worth fighting."

Walter Reich, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., put it somewhat differently.

"There are factors that complicate the horror of 9/11 and the instinctive fury that it provokes," Reich wrote in an e-mail. "These include the subsequent experiences that are connected to that event, including the 'war on terror,' the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other factors that have left us conflicted and, in some cases, dismayed, dispirited, even ashamed."

Far from everyone accepts the notion that concern about terrorism has been relegated to the back burner.

According to Matt Rojansky, executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America, the majority of Americans remain deeply concerned about terrorism and foreign policy. Rojansky argued that, by and large, the public remains frustrated that partisan bickering has prevented many of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, which dates from 2004, from being implemented.

Rojansky said that, in the post-9/11 world, security issues have become political footballs like never before, and that there needs to be a return to the Cold War notion that "politics stops at the water's edge." His organization is promoting its Secure America Challenge, which includes calling for an American foreign policy that prevents the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction.

"I don't think the average American has become complacent about terrorism," he said. "The economy is obviously going to be a huge voting issue, but national security is going to be with us for a long time." 

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