Following a string of terrorist attacks, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are rushing to respond in ways they think will win over anxious US voters. Both insist they’re the best choice to keep America safe. Both say the so-called Islamic State wants their opponent to win.
For Mr. Trump, the party he belongs to may be his most important antiterrorist credential. The GOP has long had an advantage on polling questions such as, “Which party do you most trust to handle national security?” Political scientists refer to this as “owning” an issue. Democrats “own” the issue of environmental protection, for instance. Republicans also own tax and fiscal policy.
But that may not hold true in this year's election, in part because the Republican advantage has been narrowing – and also because of the candidates' different approaches to the issue. When it comes to the response to terrorism, voters generally want specific plans and policy outlines, not just assertions of strength. That’s something that might advantage Mrs. Clinton over Trump, says a political scientist who has written extensively on the subject.
“People want experts when they are under conditions of uncertainty and anxiety,” says Bethany Albertson, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of “Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World.”
And there is definitely significant voter concern about this issue. That's clear in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Asked which issue was the most important facing the country today, 17 percent of respondents picked terrorism, ISIS, or security and safety in general, according to Quinnipiac. The economy, the choice of 26 percent, was the only category that rated higher.
The GOP’s image as the party of military strength may have its roots in the tumult of the Vietnam years, when the Democrats had a large and vociferous antiwar faction. It continued through the years of Ronald Reagan’s military spend-up. Republicans have long been the party that pushes for increases in defense spending, while Democrats generally urge reductions.
George W. Bush probably benefited from this attitude in his 2004 reelection run. According to Gallup data, the GOP has led on the question of “which party will do a better job protecting the nation from foreign threats” for all but two years since the polling firm began asking the question in 2002.
But the long US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has scrambled that calculation. And in the last year alone, the Republican advantage has dropped by half, according to Gallup. The GOP leads Democrats on the protection against foreign threats question by 47 to 40 percent, down from 55 to 32 at the beginning of 2015.
“The slide in support for the GOP this year could be tied to the upcoming presidential election,” writes Gallup’s Jim Norman. “Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has experience as both a US senator and as secretary of state, while GOP nominee Donald Trump has no direct experience in conducting foreign policy.”
Despite his party’s institutional lead on the issue, Trump generally narrowly trails Clinton in polls on the head-to-head question of who will keep America safe.
A recent Fox News poll had Clinton leading by one percentage point, 47 to 46 percent, on the terrorism and national security competence issue. A Washington Post/ABC News poll had her edge at nine points, 50 to 41 percent. Quinnipiac put her up by two.
One of Trump’s problems is that many Republican foreign policy experts have been particularly adamant that he does not have the qualifications or temperament to serve as US commander-in-chief. That’s called into question whether he truly represents the party on the issue.
And Clinton does have foreign policy credentials, whatever one thinks of her performance on such specific issues as the fight against ISIS or the collapse of the old Libyan regime. In times of heightened anxiety, voters tend to gravitate toward figures they believe can keep them safe, says Professor Albertson of the University of Texas.
That’s helped overcome the GOP’s long-standing edge on terrorism response. At times of stress voters look to politicians with identifiable policy expertise, according to Albertson. That’s evinced by specifics such as credentials and experience more than strong words.
“It’s unclear whether Trump can capitalize on the Republican Party’s advantage here,” says Albertson.
That said, Clinton’s lead on this issue is paper-thin. She may be hurt by charges that as secretary of State she is partly responsible for the current international situation, including ISIS’s rise. More attacks could flip the current situation.
The fact is that the dynamic in the current race is Clinton as the safe and capable status quo versus Trump as the risky, unpredictable bringer of change. The more chaos they see in the world, the voters may be willing to step away from the safe choice toward the risky one, writes Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post’s Fix political blog.
“Trump needs external events to affirm his diagnosis of the current state of politics – that it is an utter failure and, not only that but that the failures of politicians have made the average person less safe,” Mr. Cillizza writes.