ISIS has claimed responsibility for the shooting on Paris’s Champs-Élysées Thursday, which killed a police officer and wounded two others. The president of the United States has thoughts on how this will impact the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday:
Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2017
Let’s put aside the question of whether it’s appropriate for the president to offer unsolicited punditry on another country’s election, as well as the endorsement, now official, of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Does Trump have a point? Do recent terrorist attacks sway elections?
Yes, but not always in the same way, and probably not enough to make a significant difference in this case. A terrorist attack is a classic example of what Americans call an “October surprise,” an event that reframes the race in the final days before voting begins. The conventional wisdom is that terrorist events bring security issues to the fore of voters’ minds in a way that benefits more hawkish, conservative candidates. In this case, that would be Le Pen, who has made immigration and Islam the focus of her campaign, at the expense of centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron, who has focused on economic issues.
There’s some evidence that the conventional wisdom is correct. A 2008 Rand Corporation paper looked at the impact of terrorist attacks on election results in Israel, a country that sadly provides an excellent dataset, given its high frequency of both closely contested elections and terrorism. The authors looked at data from 200 Israeli election districts between 1988 and 2003 and found that a terrorist attack within the past three months resulted in an average 1.35 percent increase in support for right-wing parties. In a political environment as fragmented as Israel’s, that can make a difference. The authors believe that the hawkish Likud Party’s narrow victories in 1988 and 1996 were attributable to terrorism.
The United States thankfully has a much smaller sample size of domestic terrorist attacks. But the ongoing Iran hostage crisis undoubtedly contributed to Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980. And there was speculation in 2004 that the release of a new tape of Osama Bin Laden directly addressing in the American people in the days just before the U.S. election hurt John Kerry. In 2008, John McCain adviser Charlie Black was heavily criticized after speculating that another attack on U.S. soil “certainly would be a big advantage” to his candidate.
But right-wingers don’t always benefit from attacks. 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.
We don’t actually have to look that hard for evidence that terrorism in France benefits the National Front, and that this benefit has limits. The Front’s poll numbers increased after the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. And in regional elections held the following month, the party had one of its most impressive results yet, finishing first in six of France’s 13 regions, and taking 30 percent of the vote nationwide. But that was just the first round of voting. In runoffs, the socialist voters mostly backed the center-right, and the Front failed to win a single region. This is a dynamic that has been highly effective at keeping the National Front out of power, most famously in 2002 when Le Pen’s father lost to Jacques Chirac in the second round.
It’s possible that Thursday’s shooting will bring the Front’s favorite issues of Islam, immigration, and terrorism back to center stage and help the party pick up a percentage point or two. But Le Pen was already expected to make it through to the second round. Will terrorism be enough to help her overcome the Front’s difficulty in winning head-to-head runoffs? That’s harder to believe.