A Comparative Study of the Effects of Terrorist Threat on Support for Democracy

The attacks on September 11, 2001, jarringly awoke the average American to the grim reality that even a major power like the U.S. is susceptible to international terrorism. Since 9/11, the threat of another terrorist attack continues to loom in the minds of U.S. citizens, in particular during election years or when the terror threat level is elevated. At the core of this project is the fact that this is not only a U.S. phenomenon. In recent years, Al Qaeda and groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have waged deliberate, violent, and lethal attacks in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. One consequence is that the specter of terrorist threat is now thoroughly spread across both liberal and illiberal democracies. It is therefore critical that we better understand how conditions of terrorist threat affect individuals’ political evaluations, attitudes, and behaviors. As we have shown in previous work, worry about terrorism influences individuals’ evaluation and choice of leaders, preferences over international cooperation, among other factors. In this project we investigate the extent to which terrorist threats affect support for democracy, its institutions, and its practices. We further investigate the ways in which these relationships vary in well-established democracies compared to newer democracies, and how the presence (or absence) of reminders of core democratic values mitigates any negative effects of terrorism on support for democracy. We are fielding studies in the following countries: Albania, Ecuador, France, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As another comparative dimension to the project, we examine the effects of international terrorist threat on attitudes in comparison to the effects of others types of threats: domestic terrorist threat, crime waves, and economic decline.

Principal Investigators

Jennifer L. Merolla (Claremont Graduate University) and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister (Vanderbilt University)

Principal investigator names are listed alphabetically in project-related documents.


This project is currently funded by the National Science Foundation (Award Numbers 0850824 and 0851136). The broader project has received important support from numerous sources, including but not limited to the following: the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University; Fletcher Jones grants and general support from the Division of Politics & Economics at Claremont Graduate University; the Institute for Governmental Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of California-Davis; and, a grant from the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

Working Papers

Merolla, Jennifer L., Montalvo, J. Daniel, and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2011. “Terrorism and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, March 31-April 3, 2011. Received Best Paper in International Relations Award.

Merolla, Jennifer L. and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2012. Terrorist Threat and Preferences over Democratic Institutional Arrangements in the Americas.” Meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, May 23rd-May26th, San Francisco, CA.


Merolla, Jennifer L. and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2009. Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo7989509.html

Merolla, Jennifer L., Mirya R. Holman, and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2011. “Sex, Stereotypes, and Security: A Study of the Effects of Terrorist Threat on Assessments of Female Political Leadership” Women, Politics, & Policy 32(3): 173-192.

Merolla, Jennifer L., Jennifer M. Ramos, and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2011. “Authoritarianism, Need for Closure, and Conditions of Threat.” In Hogg, Michael A. and Danielle L. Blaylock, ed. Extremism and the Psychology of Uncertainty. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell. pp 212-227.

Zechmeister, Elizabeth J., Daniel Montalvo, and Jennifer L. Merolla. 2010. “Citizen Fears of Terrorism in the Americas.” AmericasBarometer Insights 46: 1-6. http://www.vanderbilt.edu/lapop/insights/I0846en_Citizen_Fears_of_Terrorism_in_the_Americas.pdf

Merolla, Jennifer L. and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister . 2009. “Terrorist Threat, Leadership and the Vote: Evidence from Three Experiments” Political Behavior 31(4): 575-601.

Merolla, Jennifer L. and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2009. “Las Percepciones de Liderazgo en el Contexto de las Elecciones Mexicanas de 2006.” Política y Gobierno volumen temático (special issue): 41-81.

Merolla, Jennifer L., Jennifer M. Ramos, and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2007. “Crisis, Charisma, and Consequences: An Experimental Study during the 2004 U.S. Election.” Journal of Politics 69(1): 30-42.

Media Reports