June 18, 2004 7:06 AM   Subscribe

People often talk about politicians getting a boost in the polls after the death of a well-known politician, the most recent example being a jump in Bush's approval ratings after the death of Reagan. Why does this happen?
posted by punishinglemur to Law & Government (7 answers total)
I would question your premise. Are you saying politicians generally jump in the polls, or just those who can be seen as ideological torchbearers? Because RR's death/celebration is certainly not going to help Kerry, and probably won't impact Bush. Are you thinking this is true for other pol deaths? Like who? Paul Wellstone? Richard Nixon?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:39 AM on June 18, 2004

I would guess it's mostly due to the number of appearances on television and in print in a totally uncritical and apolitical context. There isn't much to get pissed off at if you're just making speehes about greatness and America without anyone attacking you.

On preview, yeah, the positive effects would only extend to those who are visible and active during the funeral, or whatever, if there is such an effect.
posted by loquax at 7:43 AM on June 18, 2004

This case is special.

Confluence of events:

a/a week of hagiography and patriotic pageantry, making many people all tingly about the presidency as an office.

b/a reminder to some people who have been wavering that they used to think Republicans were swell.

c/said patriotic pageantry bumping bad Iraq news off the front page for a week.

On a larger scale, the only thing that might boost an incumbent's poll numbers when someone big dies is the coming-together part of general mourning.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:13 AM on June 18, 2004

As a Canadian side note, some people thought this happened with Chretien after Trudeau's death.
posted by transient at 8:56 AM on June 18, 2004

On a larger scale, the only thing that might boost an incumbent's poll numbers when someone big dies is the coming-together part of general mourning.

Indeed, and as you mention, the incumbent has a huge advantage in that they can act as the leader of the mourning, viz. Bush delivering RR's eulegy.

A better answer than "this is a special case," however, is the transference of generalized attraction or arousal.

Why do politicians (geographically / paternally / ideologically / somehow) related to the recently deceased get a bump in the polls? For the same reason celebrities endorse products. Gerneralized feelings of liking, as opposed to those tied to specific events (I like that guy, as I can clearly remember that one time he gave me candy), are easliy transferable. So if you feel generally good about Michael Jordan, chances are you will feel generally good about his shoes, his underwear, and his cologne. This is obviously not for any rational reason, nor any reasonable rationale, but appears to be an evolutionarily imparted imperative, perhaps to aid in social bonding and group forming. If you like your mother, you are likely to like her friends, and therefore your feelings of attatchment to the bear-clan as a whole will be stronger.

This is true for any figure, public or private. In addition, our perceptions of them tend to be particularly rosy when they die, as it would be uncouth to cast the recently departed in a negative light. Since both the quality and quantity of our positive feelings about dead people tend to be greater, the amount of transference of these feelings tend to be greater as well. As to why politicians only seem to ally themselves with dead politicians, this is probably because the recipient cannot dispute relations, similarities, and political inheritance to the living nor can they do anything politically embarassing. Anyway, those who can position themselves in a space of likely and convenient reception of this transference (kissing the coffin, delivering the eulegy, recieving the flag from the soldier who folded it, and generally attempting to become the cognitive neighbor of the deceased on our memory maps) will appear to those with a positive opinion of the dead more positively than they did previously. Those close to any light source will appear bright themselves.

[/psych 101]
posted by ChasFile at 9:18 AM on June 18, 2004

It's because people are really fucking stupid.
posted by rocketman at 12:43 PM on June 18, 2004

Now that's a helpful comment.
posted by ChasFile at 1:22 PM on June 18, 2004

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