Today’s news cycle will address remaining key questions about the death of Osama bin Laden – how he was located, who knew what when, and what exactly happened in the 40 minutes leading up to the shooting of the world’s most wanted terrorist.
But, soon afterwards, the question on the minds of many political reporters – and the president’s political opponents – will be about “the bounce.”
The al Qaeda leader’s dramatic death is the kind of news story almost certain to register the coveted presidential approval ratings spike that has historically followed a major development in domestic or foreign affairs.
But how high – and for how long – can bounces really be?
The most dramatic presidential rally effect in the history of Gallup polling was the whopping 35 percent jump in President George W. Bush’s approval rating after the September 11 attack. Bush’s approval before the terrorist assault was a tepid 51 percent but leapt to 86 percent by September 15. He soared at over 80 percent approval for six subsequent months.
Bush also benefitted from a seven point boost in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s capture on December 13, 2003, but the bounce faded by the end of the following month.
With the exception of the post-9/11 bump, presidential bounces for major national security events average about 13 percentage points and last for four to five months, according to Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.
The attack at Pearl Harbor, for example, boosted President Roosevelt’s approval by 11 percent – with effects lasting almost a year. The halting of U.S. bombings in North Vietnam was worth 14 points on President Lyndon Johnson’s approval score, for a duration of about 20 weeks. And the Cuban Missile Crisis bumped up President John Kennedy’s ratings by 12 percent for a duration of about 40 weeks.
But it’s worth noting that, while major presidential bounces can hugely alter the arc of an incumbent party’s election strategy, even the most dramatic approval bumps don’t ensure a first-term president’s future success.
While the younger Bush rode his national security bona fides to a (narrow) re-election in 2004, his father was less lucky despite making similarly striking gains in the polls in the second half of his four-year term.
Days before the beginning of Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, about 60 percent of Americans gave President George H.W. Bush a thumbs up on his job performance. By the time American troops began withdrawing from the Persian Gulf in March, his approval ratings grazed the nine-in-ten mark, peaking at 89 percent at the beginning of that month.
But – with a souring economy and a series of missteps that underscored perceptions that he was out of touch with regular Americans – Bush ultimately dropped below 30 percent, virtually ensuring his defeat in his 1992 re-election race.
According to Gallup, the key day to watch its tracking poll – comprised of a three-day rolling average -- will be this coming Thursday, which will be the first day when all three nights’ interviews with respondents will be after Sunday night’s big announcement.
Obama’s most recent approval rating, published by Gallup before the bin Laden news, stands at 46 percent.