An interesting branch of psychological research explores how people's decisions and opinions shift when they are reminded of their own mortality. It turns out that when mortality is made salient, significant changes can occur. For example, judges who are reminded of their own mortality are likely to give stiffer sentences to even nonviolent offenders, and once so reminded, ordinary people are more likely to engage in racial stereotyping.
It is natural to wonder how mortality salience is likely to affect political judgments. A paper by Mark Landau and his colleagues, in 30 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1136 (2004), offers some intriguing clues. Here are two key findings. (a) After people are merely reminded of their own mortality (by being asked, for example, to describe "what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead"), they show stronger support for President Bush and his policies in Iraq. (b) After people are reminded of their mortality OR of the 9/11 attacks, they become more favorably disposed toward President Bush and less favorably disposed toward John Kerry.
Strikingly, mortality salience had similar effects, in increasing support for Bush, among both liberals and conservatives. Even more strikingly, the reference to the terrorist attacks had an even greater effect, in increasing support for Bush, among liberals.
The authors conclude that their results "support the hypotheses that MS [mortality salience] and a reminder of 9/11 would both increase the appeal of President Bush regardless of political orientation." Of course we are speaking of an increase in appeal, not of unanimous or majority support; most liberals should be expected to be critical of Bush even after being reminded of 9/11, and some perhaps more so. The point is that among liberals as a whole, there was a statistically significant shift in his direction.
What accounts for this shift? There are two possibilities. The first is that across the political spectrum, many people believe, on reflection, that President Bush is simply likely to be better in protecting national security, and hence in protecting people against the threat of dying from a terrorist attack. The second is that a reminder of mortality or of the 9/11 attacks triggers a kind of visceral fear and outrage, and that visceral fear and outrage lead people to support the leader who seems more aggressive. The authors do not test these two possibilities, but their analysis strongly suggests that their view is closer to the second.
Of course the situation is different now from what it was in 2004; but it is doubtful that it is relevantly different. The upshot is that any reminder of the terrorist threat is likely to help President Bush, and probably to help Republicans generally, even (and here is the important fact) to the extent of causing a shift in their direction among moderates and some liberals. It remains to be seen if Democratic leaders can cause a change in the underlying dynamics.