Rally 'round the flag effect

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President Bush approval rating from 2001 to 2006. Spikes in approval coincide with the September 11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq, and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

The rally 'round the flag effect (or syndrome) is a concept used in political science and international relations to explain increased short-run popular support of the President of the United States during periods of international crisis or war.[1] Because Rally 'Round The Flag syndrome reduces criticism of governmental policies, it is seen as a factor of diversionary foreign policy.[1]

Mueller's definition[edit]

Political scientist John Mueller wrote his landmark paper Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson in 1970, where he conceived the idea of the effect. Mueller defined the effect as coming from an event with three qualities:[2]

  1. "Is international"
  2. "Involves the United States and particularly the President directly"
  3. "Specific, dramatic, and sharply focused"

In addition, Mueller created five categories of rallies. These categories are considered dated by modern political scientists, as they rely heavily on Cold War events.[3] Mueller's five categories are:

  1. "Sudden US military intervention" (e.g., Korean War, Bay of Pigs Invasion)
  2. "Major diplomatic actions" (e.g., Truman Doctrine)
  3. "Dramatic technological developments" (e.g., Sputnik)
  4. "US-Soviet summit meetings" (e.g., Potsdam Conference)
  5. "Major military developments in ongoing wars" (e.g., Tet Offensive)

Causes and durations[edit]

Since Mueller's original theories, two schools of thought have emerged to explain the causes of the syndrome. The first, "The Patriotism School of Thought" holds that in times of crisis, the American public sees the President as the embodiment of national unity. The second, "The Opinion Leadership School" believes that the rally emerges from a lack of criticism from members of the opposition party, most often in the United States Congress. If opposition party members appear to support the president, the media has no conflict to report, thus it appears to the public that all is well with the performance of the president. The two theories have both been criticized, but it is generally accepted that the Patriotism School of thought is better to explain causes of rallies, while the Opinion Leadership School of thought is better to explain duration of rallies. It is also believed that the lower the presidential approval rating before the crisis, the larger the increase will be in terms of percentage points because it leaves the president more room for improvement. For example, Franklin Roosevelt only had a 12% increase in approval from 72% to 84% following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, whereas George W. Bush had a 39% increase from 51% to 90% following the attacks on September 11.[4]

Another theory about the cause of the syndrome is believed to be embedded in the US Constitution. Unlike in other countries, the constitution makes the President both head of government and head of state. Because of this, the president receives a temporary boost in popularity because his Head of State role gives him symbolic importance to the American people. However, as time goes on his duties as Head of Government require partisan decisions that polarize opposition parties and diminish popularity. This theory falls in line more with the Opinion Leadership School.

Due to the highly statistical nature of presidential polls, University of Alabama political scientist John O'Neal has approached the study of rally sound the flag using mathematics. O'Neal has postulated that the Opinion Leadership School is the more accurate of the two using mathematical equations. These equations are based on quantified factors such as the number of headlines from the New York Times about the crisis, the presence of bipartisan support or hostility, and prior popularity of the president.[5]

Historical examples[edit]

The effect has been examined within the context of nearly every major foreign policy crises since World War II. Some notable examples:

  • Cuban Missile Crisis: President John F. Kennedy's approval rating in early October 1962 was at 61%. By November, after the crisis had passed, Kennedy's approval rose to 73%. The spike in approval peaked in December 1962 at 75%. Kennedy's approval rating slowly decreased again until it reached the pre-crisis level of 61% in June 1963.[3]
  • Iran hostage crisis: President Jimmy Carter quickly gained 26 percentage points, jumping from 32 to 58% approval following the initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979. However, Carter's handling of the crisis caused popular support to decrease, and by November 1980 Carter had returned to his pre-crisis approval rating.[6]
  • Operation Desert Storm (Persian Gulf War): President George H. W. Bush was rated at 61% approval in December 1990, but following the success of Operation Desert Storm, Bush enjoyed a peak 89% approval rating in February 1991. From there, Bush's approval rating slowly decreased, reaching the pre-crisis level of 61% in October 1991.[3]
  • Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush received an unprecedented increase in his approval rating. On September 10, Bush had a Gallup Poll rating of 51%. By September 15, his approval rate had increased by 34% to 85%. Just a week later, Bush was at 90%, the highest presidential approval rating ever. Over a year after the attacks occurred, Bush still received higher approval than he did before 9/11 (68% in November 2002). Both the size and duration of Bush's popularity after 9/11 are believed to be the largest of any post-crisis boost. Many people believe that this popularity gave Bush a mandate and eventually the political leverage to begin the War in Iraq.[3][7]
  • Escalation of China-Japan territorial dispute in 2012: The dispute concerns the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands (called ‘Diaoyudao’ in the People`s Republic of China). It has been suggested that Japanese and Chinese governments have utilized “popular nationalism as a state-led strategy to bolster its legitimacy." Furthermore, in China, “the government [has been] strategic in whether it allows nationalist protesters to mobilize, weighing the diplomatic and domestic benefits of tolerance versus repression”, in order to further political objectives.[8]


The idea of the syndrome is seen as controversial[citation needed] because it implies that crises and more importantly, wars actually benefit presidents for political purposes. It is argued that because wars increase the popularity of a president, a president might be more willing to use military force if his approval rating is dropping. Because this diverts attention away from the handling of domestic policies, some[who?] believe the rally round the flag syndrome encourages diversionary foreign policy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Goldstein, Joshua S., and Jon C. Pevehouse. International Relations: Eighth Edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.
  2. ^ Mueller, John. "Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson." American Political Science Review.64(1970). <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/1955610.pdf?acceptTC=true>.
  3. ^ a b c d Hetherington, Marc J., Michael Nelson. "Anatomy of a Rally Effect: George W. Bush and the War on Terrorism." PS: Political Science and Politics.36 (2003). <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/3649343.pdf>.
  4. ^ Chapman, Terrence L., Dan Reiter. "The United Nations Security Council and the Rally 'Round the Flag Effect." The Journal of Conflict Resolution. 48(2004). <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/4149799.pdf>.
  5. ^ Lian, Bradley, John R. O'Neal. "Presidents, the Use of Military Force, and Public Opinion."Journal of Conflict Resolution. 37(1993).<http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/174524.pdf>.
  6. ^ Callaghan, Karen J., Simo Virtanen. "Revised Models of the Rally Phenomenon: The Case of the Carter Presidency."Cambridge University Press. 55 (1993).<http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2131999.pdf>.
  7. ^ Curran, Margaret Ann, James N. Schubert, Patrick A. Stewart. "A Defining Presidential Moment: 9/11 and the rally Effect." Political Psychology. 23(2002). <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/3792592.pdf>.
  8. ^ Weiss, Jessica. "Nationalism and Anti-Japan Demonstrations in China."<http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/09/19/nationalism-and-anti-japan-demonstrations-in-china/>.