The spate of recent terrorist attacks — in Paris, San Bernardino, Calif., and now Belgium — continues to raise questions about whether and how terrorism might affect the 2016 presidential election. The conventional wisdom is that foreign policy is not that salient to Americans in most White House elections, but this year could prove different.
The newly released American National Election Studies (ANES) pilot study, which was conducted in January, provides a window into this question. The data show that anxiety about terrorism is concentrated among Republicans and correlated with support for Donald Trump — but there remains considerable evidence that Hillary Clinton is the candidate advantaged on this issue.
In the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, it’s not surprising that people expressed concern about terrorism. Almost half (43 percent) said they were “extremely” or “very” worried that “that the United States will experience a terrorist attack in the near future.” An additional 25 percent were “moderately worried.”
Republicans and independents were more worried than Democrats. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans, 47 percent of independents and 33 percent of Democrats are either “very” or “extremely” worried about a terrorist attack. Primary exit polls (such as those in South Carolina and New Hampshire) also show that Republicans are more concerned about foreign policy broadly and terrorism specifically.
Anxiety about a potential terrorist attack was correlated with how favorably respondents evaluated Trump and Clinton on a 100-point “feeling thermometer.” Among, Republicans, Democrats and independents, those who were more anxious about terrorism also evaluated Trump more favorably.
Of course, we do not know which is chicken and which is egg. Voters who support Trump may do so because they are scared about terrorism. Or people who already support Trump may simply express more anxiety about terrorism because they have heard Trump and other Republican candidates argue that the Obama administration has left the country vulnerable to terrorism. The survey data does not allow us to separate these two possibilities.
People anxious about terrorism were also more likely to support aggressive policies, such as sending troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — even after accounting for their party identification and general political ideology.
Anxiety may be creating party polarization on this issue. In total, 43 percent of all respondents — but 64 percent of Trump supporters compared with 27 percent of Clinton supporters — support sending troops.
Anxiety about terrorism has potential relevance for homeland security policy as well. The more worried people are, the less willing they are to support Syrian refugees coming to the United States. Overall, 32 percent oppose allowing Syrian refugees in to the United States. Again, supporters of Trump and Clinton are starkly divided on this: 54 percent of Trump supporters and 11 percent of Clinton supporters oppose allowing Syrian refugees in the United States.
If the nominees are Clinton and Trump, does an anxious public favor Trump? Not necessarily. Republican support may be an effect of anxiety or itself the cause of anxiety. And Clinton has considerable foreign policy experience and is more hawkish than President Obama. At the same time, some evidence suggests that being a woman (and a Democrat) may weaken Clinton’s claims of foreign policy expertise, at least for some voters.
Trump also confronts challenges. He has a business background but no formal foreign policy experience. His foreign policy positions, as underscored in his interview with The Washington Post’s editorial board, strike many observers as a return to trade protectionism and isolationism.
For this reason, not only has he had difficulty rallying Republican foreign policy experts to his side, but some of these experts are actively campaigning against him. Our research shows that anxiety should lead people to support expertise, not just threatening rhetoric.
At the moment, these various factors work to Clinton’s advantage. A recent Washington Post poll found that she has a 54 percent to 40 percent advantage over Trump in whom people trust to deal with terrorism, and a 61 percent to 32 percent advantage in whom people trust to handle an international crisis.
Under such circumstances of high voter anxiety, citizens tend to rally around the figures they trust more to protect them. With 50 percent of Americans in fear of a Trump presidency, it remains to be seen whether Trump can convince the electorate that he is the right person to keep the country safe.
Bethany Albertson is an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a non-resident fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Shana Kushner Gadarian is an assistant professor of political science, Maxwell School, Syracuse University.