The “Rally Around the Flag” Effect in American Presidential Elections

Are presidents more successful when they keep the peace or win the war? A look at the “Rally Around the Flag” effect and wartime (-ish) US presidents.

Nov 22, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
president franklin roosevelt rally around the flag ww2
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II in 1942, via Democracy: A Journal of Ideas


Until the 1990s, most US presidents were military veterans, having served in the armed forces at some point in their lives. As a nation having won its independence and then defended it through armed conflict, the military plays a large role in our government and politics. When it comes to presidential politics, how have our commanders-in-chief utilized either their military background or past or present military conflicts to appeal to voters? The “rally around the flag” effect occurs when politicians appeal for patriotic support for the military and whichever administration oversees it. From George Washington to George W. Bush, let’s take a look at presidents and their assistance from the “rally around the flag” effect.


Where “Rally Around the Flag” Began: George Washington and the Revolutionary War

An artist’s rendering of then-general George Washington crossing the Delaware River to surprise the British in December 1776, via the Mount Vernon Ladies Association


The new United States did not actually have a president until 1789, almost thirteen years after declaring independence from Britain. As every elementary school graduate knows, George Washington was the United States’ first president. He rose to prominence as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Against tremendous odds, and despite heavy initial losses, his military leadership secured America’s independence from Britain after a victory at Yorktown in 1781. He was America’s first undisputed national hero.


A protester attacking a government official during Shays’ Rebellion of 1786, via Socialist Revolution


After the Revolutionary War formally ended in 1783, George Washington retired to Virginia. Three years later, a growing rebellion protested state and local taxes. Angry mobs in Massachusetts were overthrowing local governments and threatening to abolish laws regarding debts and taxation. For a time, it looked like the fledgling new nation may come crashing down, as there was little central (federal) government to deal with widespread threats and insurrections. The crisis was eventually handled by two generals, and the public now desired a strong central government for protection, security, and stability. The US military’s role in putting down Shays’ Rebellion helped instill gratitude for the institution and showed that, even during peacetime, maintaining a standing army was a good idea.


Seeing that the new nation needed strong leadership, Washington returned to public life from retirement and agreed to chair the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. After the states ratified the new US Constitution in 1788, Washington was named the first US president by unanimous electoral college vote, becoming the only president to win by universal acclaim. The former commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was now the first civilian commander-in-chief of the United States, creating a powerful link between military heroism and civilian political success.

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George Washington’s presidential portrait, via The White House, Washington DC


As the first president, virtually everything Washington did set a powerful precedent for his successors. His pre-political status as a war hero and commanding general paved the way for such backgrounds to be popular with the electorate. Generals may appear to be less partisan due to the intentionally nonpartisan image of the US military, helping them attract moderate and independent voters. Of prominent American institutions, ranging from the presidency to television news to health insurance, the military consistently polled highest in terms of trustworthiness. George Washington’s military credentials and nonpartisan image – in fact, his Farewell Address of 1796 encouraged Americans to avoid creating political parties at the time – helped him benefit tremendously from a “rally around the flag” effect.


War of 1812 and the Elections of 1812-1820: Incumbent Party Victories

An artist’s rendering of the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, via Star Spangled Music


George Washington’s status as a war hero saw him chosen as the first US president after the nation’s first armed conflict. America’s second declared war, the War of 1812, saw combat with Britain once again after a simmering period of tensions. Both Britain and France had been interfering with American ships in the Atlantic Ocean, and the 1810 elections saw new arrivals in Congress from the South and West who were aggressive “war hawks.” In 1812, the outbreak of war came as a relative shock, and Congress did not respond to president James Madison’s request for a declaration of war with unanimity.


U.S. President James Madison (1809-1817) was the first true wartime president in American history, presiding during the War of 1812, via the American Battlefield Trust


Although the beginning of the War of 1812 was controversial, president Madison ran for re-election and won. Supporters of the war portrayed Madison as a warrior who was standing up for America against British aggression. Although initially opposed to maintaining a standing army, Madison reversed course and expanded the U.S. military from 7,000 to 35,000 men during the course of the war.


President Madison and his government had to flee Washington, D.C. in August 1814 as British troops approached and set fire to the US Capitol and White House. However, by the end of that year, both nations had had enough of the expensive war, and stiff American resistance and recent military victories led the British public to want peace. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814, and the last battle of the war – the Battle of New Orleans – was won by American forces on January 8, 1815. Late-war American victories at Baltimore and New Orleans increased public spirits and patriotism. The famous Star-Spangled Banner was inspired by the U.S. flag remaining aloft during a British bombardment on September 14, 1814.


James Madison’s Secretary of State, Revolutionary War veteran James Monroe, won the presidency in 1816 due to victory in the War of 1812, via the American Battlefield Trust


While President James Madison only received a partial “rally around the flag” effect during his re-election of 1812, with northern states ambivalent about the war, victory in the war boosted his administration as guarantors of American independence. Madison’s Secretary of State, James Monroe, decided to run for president in the next election. His wartime service and status as a Revolutionary War veteran made him appear heroic, and he won an easy victory in the presidential election. Thus, fifth US President James Monroe became the first true full beneficiary of a “rally around the flag” effect. He was popular and actually ran for re-election unopposed in 1820, something which has not happened since!


As president, Monroe took an aggressive stance against European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere (North and South America). In his December 1823 address to Congress, Monroe declared that European powers would not be allowed to colonize further in our proverbial backyard. This Monroe Doctrine became a de-facto U.S. government policy and remains in effect today concerning powers like Russia and China allying themselves militarily with states in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. This show of strength helped invoke feelings of pride and patriotism among Americans.


US Civil War and the Presidential Election of 1864: Lincoln as A Proven Wartime Leader

A Union charge during the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), via The Strategy Bridge


The next official US war was a brutal civil war, pitting the slave-owning South against the free-state North. Years of simmering tensions between the rural agricultural Southern states, which relied on slave labor, and the industrialized, more urban Northern states, which did not allow slavery, erupted into war. In February 1861, seven Southern states seceded from the United States and formed their own country, the Confederate States of America. Incoming U.S. president Abraham Lincoln said he did not wish for war but would not tolerate secession. A month later, the war began.


Quickly, the US Civil War proved to be one of the most exhausting and bloody struggles the world had seen to date. Although the United States, known as the Union, had a much larger population and industrial base, it had to wage an offensive war against a well-entrenched Confederacy. Piece by piece, the Union began to pound away at the fringes of the Confederacy, but a stalemate was seen between the US capital in Washington DC and the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia.


U.S. president Abraham Lincoln won reelection in 1864 during the American Civil War (1861-65), via the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


Similar to the War of 1812, the Civil War was not universally popular among Northerners. As casualties mounted, Lincoln’s administration faced pressure to end the war quickly. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln remained steadfast in his conviction that the Union be preserved and the Southern states not allowed to secede. On January 1, 1863, he famously declared all slaves in Southern states free with The Emancipation Proclamation, showing his support for freedom and equality but making it more difficult to negotiate a peaceful end to the war.


Despite facing opposition for re-election in 1864 by those who wanted a swift end to the war, Lincoln’s wartime leadership won him a strong majority of the popular vote. As a Republican, he defeated Democratic candidate George McClellan, a former Union general, who would allow the South to rejoin the Union without freeing the slaves. Lincoln stood firm on the abolition of slavery and was boosted in the polls in September 1864 by the Union’s capture of Atlanta, Georgia, which was a major Confederate hub. Ultimately, voters chose to maintain steady leadership during an ongoing war and not change strategies.


Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Rally Around the Flag Support

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was named General-in-Chief of the Union armies during the U.S. Civil War, via American Battlefield Trust


Despite dealing with personal struggles such as alcoholism, Ulysses S. Grant became the most famous war hero in politics since George Washington. A West Point graduate who later struggled as an officer, Grant volunteered to return to service during the US Civil War as colonel. He rose through the ranks and was named General-in-Chief of the Union armies in 1864. After the Union won the Civil War in 1865, Grant was lauded as a hero. In a direct application of “rally around the flag” support, Grant won the presidency in 1868.


As president, Grant was aggressive in defending federal government goals during Reconstruction, during which time the South was still under US military control. He used the military to prevent Southern civilian violence against newly-freed African Americans. Despite his war heroism, Grant’s popularity waned in his second term due to an administration scandal. Although historians view Grant as an honest man, he chose advisers poorly and was frequently embarrassed by their legal woes. Nevertheless, Grant went on to posthumous fame by becoming the first ex-president to write memoirs, a practice that is now standard.


The Spanish-American War: McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt

An artist’s rendering of the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, via Sandburg’s Hometown


Despite the Monroe Doctrine, Spain maintained the colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, close to US shores. As Cubans fought for independence in the mid-1890s, sensationalized news stories generated tremendous American sympathy and turned US public opinion against Spain. Aside from wanting Spain out of the region, America also had large economic interests in Cuba in the form of sugarcane. With tensions simmering, a US warship exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, in February 1898. Immediately, the press blamed Spain and called for war. On April 25, war was declared by Congress.


The US attacked in Cuba, with the Rough Rider cavalry helping rout the Spanish opposition. Rough Rider leader Theodore Roosevelt, the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy who had resigned to volunteer for military service, became a popular war hero. Upon returning to New York, Colonel Roosevelt was elected as governor that fall. In 1900, “Teddy” Roosevelt was named vice president after president William McKinley’s original veep, Garret Hobart, had passed away the previous November. Both the Spanish American War and Teddy Roosevelt’s political rise were quick and invoked public feelings of patriotism and vigor.


In the 1900 presidential election, incumbent William McKinley (left) ran with new vice president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (right), via the Library of Congress


America’s quick victory over Spain turned it into an imperialist power in its own right. The victory, along with a strong economy, contributed to the easy re-election of Republican President William McKinley in 1900. During the campaign, vice president Roosevelt praised the war as a highly successful campaign to liberate oppressed peoples from imperialist Spain. The public rallied around the patriotic and pro-military rhetoric and granted McKinley a second term.


Sadly, McKinley was assassinated a year later, and Teddy Roosevelt was named the youngest-ever US president ever at age 42. As commander-in-chief, Roosevelt continued his hawkish stance on the military but also promoted international diplomacy. He famously coined the term “walk softly, and carry a big stick” regarding foreign affairs. As a war hero who promoted America’s prominence on the international stage, Roosevelt won the election to a full term in 1904.


World War II and “Don’t Change Horses in Midstream”

A 1944 campaign poster for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth term in the White House, via the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


World War I did not see a “rally around the flag” effect in regard to a presidential election, as incumbent president Woodrow Wilson actually campaigned for re-election in 1916 on the premise that “he kept us out of war.” The United States remained neutral in the war in Europe until early 1917 when renewed German aggression prompted a declaration of war. When World War II erupted in Europe some twenty years later, incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt also maintained American neutrality. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the US officially joined the Allied Powers and engaged in a two-front war against Germany in Europe and Japan in the Pacific.


Like Abraham Lincoln in 1864, “FDR” ran for re-election during the latter stage of a brutal war. Due to strong public support for the war, in which a foreign power directly attacked America for the first time since the War of 1812, Republican opponent Thomas E. Dewey could not gain much ground on FDR. Echoing Lincoln, Roosevelt urged Americans to “not change horses in midstream,” meaning that his wartime administration was best suited to win the conflict and protect US interests. Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth presidential term in 1944 bases on his strong wartime leadership and the “rally around the flag” effect.


I Want To Be Like Ike: WWII Hero Becomes President

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower (US) addressing troops ahead of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France in 1944, via the US National Guard


Just as the US Civil War produced national war heroes in politics, World War II would do the same. In the European theater, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was named Supreme Allied Commander over the US, British, and Canadian forces that would soon storm the beaches of Normandy, France in the unparalleled D-Day Invasion on June 6, 1944. After D-Day was a success, and Germany lay defeated less than a year later, “Ike” Eisenhower was a national hero. He was so popular, in fact, that both the Democratic and Republican parties courted him for presidential tickets.


Ike ran as the Republican nominee for president in 1952. As a popular war hero, he was a highly successful political campaigner. He was also seen as a potential solution to an ongoing wartime stalemate in Korea: the Korean War had bogged down, and incumbent president Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, was seen as unable to defeat the communists. After being challenged by Truman to come up with his own solution to the stalemate in Korea, Ike announced that, should he be elected, he would personally go to the front to see the situation. This boosted his already-high popularity, and he handily defeated his Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson. The “rally around the flag” helped Eisenhower, who had never held political office, win the White House easily.


Rally Around the Flag: Global War on Terror and George W. Bush

A re-election campaign commercial image of president George W. Bush, who launched wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), via the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Richmond


In 2004, incumbent Republican president George W. Bush successfully won re-election by arguing that he was the best option to defeat terrorists. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US had invaded Afghanistan to depose its terrorist-harboring Taliban regime. Although this had been widely supported, Bush’s later decision to invade Iraq in 2003, allegedly because dictator Saddam Hussein was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), was more controversial. Despite growing casualties in Iraq and it looking increasingly likely that the US would be bogged down in a guerrilla war against insurgents, voters agreed that George W. Bush was the right choice to combat terrorism.


Although Bush was able to use the “rally around the flag” effect to bolster his popularity despite not cleanly winning a war, previous presidents had not been so lucky. In 1968, Democratic president Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for a second full term due to his growing unpopularity as the US struggled in the Vietnam War. In 1992, George Bush Sr. did not win re-election despite sky-high approval ratings 18 months earlier when his administration swiftly won the Gulf War. These two aberrations reveal that the “rally around the flag” effect works best when the war is either currently ongoing or very recently ended… And the US either undeniably won the war, or it still appears that it can win.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.