How terrorism can alter elections


The French presidential election has turned into a binary contest between two political outsiders, one a staunch defender of the postwar liberal order and the other a fierce populist intent on tearing it down. These opposing forces place France at the heart of a faultline running through western democracies, the Financial Times reports.

The jihadist attack on the Champs Elysees in Paris just days before the poll prompted speculation about terrorism’s impact on the democratic process.

Terrorism is nearly alone in its power to amplify the actions of an individual to influence the behavior of millions, the New York Times reports:

Claude Berrebi of the RAND Corporation and Esteban F. Klor of Hebrew University found, in a 2008 study, that when an area suffered a terrorist attack in the three months before an election, voters in that area shifted toward right-wing parties by an average of 1.35 percentage points.

The effect was messier in parts of the country that did not experience the attack. Areas where voters already leaned right tended to increase support for right-wing parties. But left-leaning areas reduced their support for right-wing parties. Even if those effects cancel out in the short term, in the long term they can deepen political polarization, making politics more extreme.

In general, voters in countries hit by attacks list terrorism as among their top areas of concern. And, political scientists have found, terrorism benefits conservative candidates more than it does liberal ones, the Atlantic adds:

Robb Willer, a professor of sociology at Stanford, told Stanford News: “Conservative positions on a variety of issues, including national defense, military funding and immigration, are more popular during periods of heightened terror threat. Further, conservative politicians are more likely to support militant foreign policy positions than liberals, while liberals are more likely to support diplomatic solutions. These policy orientations lead conservatives to gain increased support during times of heightened security concern.”

But right-wingers don’t always benefit from attacks, Slate’s Joshua Keating adds:

In the 2004 Spanish elections, held just days after the Madrid train bombings, which killed nearly 200 people, the conservative government that had strongly backed the Bush administration’s war on terror was ousted in an upset by Socialist challengers who pledged to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq. In that case, the catalyst may have been less the attack itself than the government’s clumsy handling of it: Officials initially blamed the jihadist bombing on Basque separatists.

When Terrorism Decides Elections

According to a later study of Israeli elections, by Anna Getmansky of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and Thomas Zeitzoff of American University, the Times adds, areas in Israel that were within range of rocket attacks launched from Gaza-based terror groups showed a 2 to 6 percentage point increase in vote share to right-wing parties, the authors found, controlling for other factors. The gain mostly went to Israel’s nationalist right-wing parties, rather than religious or sectarian parties

Exposure to terrorism tends to increase support for extreme politics in a number of ways, according to a 2015 study led by Daphna Canetti-Nisim, a political psychologist at the University of Maryland:

  • For one, it increases hostility toward minorities. While this effect is strongest when people associate that minority with the attack, it can play out in other ways. People who endure terrorism “feel threatened and vulnerable,” the study found.
  • This “psychological distress” makes them more likely to retreat to familiar in-groups and view outsiders as threats. This supports Ms. Le Pen’s narrative of a civilizational conflict along demographic lines.
  • Terrorism can also increase “popular support for nondemocratic regulations and practices,” particularly those targeting minorities, the study finds. 


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