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Did the Bin Laden Tape Tip the Election to Bush?

By David Gopoian

Shortly after the election, John Kerry attributed his loss to the effects of the bin Laden tape released the Friday preceding the election. In interviews since, he has consistently contended the pivotal impact of that tape on the election’s outcome. More recently, in excerpts trumpeting Bill Sammons’ new book, Strategery, George Bush is also said to have attributed his election to the bin Laden tape. For one of the few times in recent years, Kerry and Bush appear to have reached a consensus.

Is there any empirical evidence to support these contentions? Some of the best data available comes from the Election Day survey conducted by Democracy Corps. The analysis that follows is my own independent interpretation of that data. The relevant sample is relatively small (n=470 voters) because only a split panel of the total sample was asked the central question about their reaction to the release of the bin Laden tape.

Do the data support the perceptions of the major presidential candidates that the bin Laden tape tipped the election to Bush? There is one easy and short response (Bush’s preference?) and one lengthier and more nuanced response (Kerry’s preference?).

The quick answer is that if either candidate benefited from the bid Laden tape, that candidate was Bush and not Kerry. How much Bush benefited and whether it decided the outcome of the election is less certain.

Of the 470 voters who responded to the question about the bin Laden tape, the vast majority had indicated that their candidate preferences had already been determined long before the final weekend of the campaign. Taking the most generous possible definition of voters susceptible to last-weekend events, the data suggest only 17% were likely to have been influenced by an event such as the bin Laden tape.

That generous definition includes voters who indicated they were uncertain of their vote intentions until the final two weeks of the campaign, and voters who indicated that they had seriously considered voting for the candidate they did not ultimately choose at some point in the campaign. This reduced the weighted N of susceptible voters to 80 of the 470 interviewed in the split sample.

Among those 80 voters, 50% of whom voted on Election Day for Bush and 50% for Kerry, nearly two-thirds (64%) told interviewers the bin-Laden tape had no effect on their presidential preference. One-third indicated the event had made them more likely to vote for Bush and 4% indicated it had made them more likely to vote for Kerry. At face value, the data clearly show that among voters influenced by the release of bin Laden tape, nearly all of the impact was in a pro-Bush direction.

On this point, there is little contention. If either candidate was advantaged by the release of the tape, it was the incumbent who had failed to capture Osama, dead or alive, 1,124 days after September 11, 2001. To borrow a refrain from a Vonnegut novel, so it goes.

Nonetheless, given my generous definition of susceptible voters and given the data showing that the bin-Laden tape had no effect on two-thirds of voters, the third that was motivated to consider Bush more favorably accounted for 6% of the entire electorate.

Granted, a movement of 6% of the vote to Bush based on the bin Laden tape could well have tipped the election to Bush. But we must also factor in this bit of data: more than one-third of those who said the release of the tape made them more likely to vote for Bush nonetheless did not take that final step of voting for Bush. Thirty-six percent of them actually ended up voting for Kerry. So, now there remain 4% of all voters who may have been persuaded to have voted for Bush because of the bin Laden tape.

To attribute this relatively massive shift of 4 percentage points in one weekend to one event alone, one would have to conclude that this subset of voters had an otherwise balanced ledger of pro-Bush and pro-Kerry sentiments and that the bin Laden tape literally transformed an otherwise even landscape of perceived candidate merits into an overnight avalanche that crushed Kerry.

But here is what the survey data tell us about that final 4% who might have experienced such an epiphany. Their perspectives about five other campaign events showed a similar proclivity to view all phenomena through Bush-friendly lenses. These included tendencies to see not only Kerry’s reference to Cheney’s lesbian daughter in the third debate, but also stories about Bush’s National Guard service, Christopher Reeve’s appeal to vote for Kerry as a champion of stem cell research, and the pre-election assault on Fallujah by insurgents that resulted in massive US Marine fatalities, as events that made them more likely to prefer Bush. Tellingly, the mean thermometer score for Bush from this subset of voters was 81, compared to 51 for Kerry.

My conclusion is that these voters may well have been reinforced by the release of the bin Laden tape to have followed through with their predetermined intent to vote for Bush. But based on the data in hand, it would be difficult to imagine a scenario that would have thwarted that intent. They were persuaded by the bin Laden tape exclusively in about the same way that a chirp by the mouse persuades the hawk that the rodent in sight might represent a good meal.