Are Voters Sensitive to Terrorism? Direct Evidence from the Israeli Electorate

This is a review of Are Voters Sensitive to Terrorism? Direct Evidence from the Israeli Electorate (2008) by Claude Berrebi and Esteban Klor. American Political Science Review 102 (August): 279-301. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Terrorism within a particular locality exerts a strong effect, particularly if it occurs within three months of election day. In general, support for right-bloc parties tends to rise in localities that experience terror attacks.

Since 1984 Israeli has endured over 500 terrorist attacks, resulting in over 1000 fatalities. These attacks, together with the frequency of parliamentary elections, enables the authors to conduct a rigorous quantatitive analysis to answer a simple questions: Are voters sensitive to terrorism?1

At first blush, one might find the question simple: Of course voters are sensitive to terrorism. After all, the 2004 Madrid train bombings are widely credited with changing the outcome of Spain’s elections, to the point that the ever-reliable Wikipedia reports this as fact.2 But Berrebi and Klor go well beyond the elementary question of whether terrorism matters–they tell us exactly how it matters.

In brief: Terrorism within a particular locality exerts a strong effect, particularly if it occurs within three months of election day. In general, support for right-bloc parties tends to rise in localities that experience terror attacks.3 This shift towards the right happens regardless of who is currently in power. Voters in an area hit recently by terrorism don’t vote against the right if the right happens to control the government, as a “running tally” view of party would imply (see Fiorina 1981). Instead, they shift to the right even if the right bloc is already in power–as an “issue ownership” argument might imply (e.g. Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994). As the authors interpret it, voters shift right because the right bloc is associated with tough responses to terrorism.

These findings have interesting implications for terrorism research, which the authors review well. In particular, these findings raise something of a paradox: If terrorist acts increase voter support for heavy-handed anti-terror tactics, then do terrorists simply reap troubles for themselves through their actions? The authors’ response: While that may be true, terrorists also succeed in placing terror at the top of the policy agenda–drawing attention to the terrorists’ cause.

Critique

Because of the methodological difficulties involved with this study, the authors spend a considerable amount of space discussing data and robustness issues. I would have liked more discussion of what this all means, though. In particular, the authors assume a purely rational causal mechanism. Both the “running tally” and “issue ownership” arguments fit mold. But nowhere do the authors cite Kam and Kinder’s recent article (2007), which identifies a link between “ethnocentrism” and support for the post-9/11 war on terror. Moreover, neither this study nor Kam and Kinder’s delves into the deep (and highly relevant) psychological literature on mortality salience.

Regardless, an interesting study worth reading carefully.

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