Matthew A. Baum

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The Constituent Foundations of the Rally-Round-the-Flag Phenomenon

Scholars have repeatedly confirmed the phenomenon of relatively short-lived spikes in presidential approval ratings immediately following the occurrence of sudden, high profile foreign policy crisis events.  Despite the massive attention heaped upon the rally phenomenon, relatively little attention has been paid to its constituent elements. Yet, recent research has found that different groups of Americans respond differently to presidents’ activities according to their interests and attentiveness.  In this study, I disaggregate public opinion along two dimensions: political party and political sophistication. I argue that, in responding to presidential activities, particularly such high profile activities as the use of force abroad, different groups of Americans weigh various individual, contextual and situational factors differently.  I investigate all major U.S. uses of force between 1953 and 1998 and find that the propensity of different groups to "rally" does indeed vary according to individual circumstances.  Moreover, these differences are refracted through variations in the external environment.  To explain these differences, I employ two models of public opinion change.  The first emphasizes the importance of threshold effects in explaining opinion change.  That is, individuals who are closest to the point of ambivalence between approval and disapproval are most likely to change their opinion in response to external circumstances. The second emphasizes both the propensities of different types of individuals to be exposed to a given piece of information, and their susceptibility to having their opinion influenced by any additional information.  My results offer a more nuanced picture of the nature and extent of the rally phenomenon than has been available in previous studies.  My findings hold important implications for other, related, scholarly debates, such whether, and under what circumstances, the use of force can successfully divert public attention from a president's domestic political difficulties.

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(Note: This is an electronic version of an article published in International Studies Quarterly. Complete citation information for the final version of the paper, as published in the print edition of International Studies Quarterly  is available on the Blackwell Synergy online delivery service, accessible via the journal's website at or

The time-series data for this article is available for download as a zipped Excel file here .

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