A crescendo of tough talk on Syrian refugees and terrorism seems to be elevating the toughest talkers in the GOP primary -- most notably Donald Trump. But among the broader American public, the most trusted person to handle the issue is Hillary Clinton.
Rising fears and record disapproval of President Obama on the terrorism issue might figure to boost Republican candidates who have been outspoken since the Paris terrorist attacks. But a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds the Democratic front-runner and former secretary of state is better-trusted on dealing with the terrorism threat, with her biggest edge over Donald Trump.
By 50 percent to 42 percent, more Americans say they trust Clinton to handle the threat of terrorism than Trump, who leads the Republican field and responded to the Paris terrorist attacks by calling for heightened surveillance of mosques and redoubling his opposition to allowing Syrian refugees to settle in the U.S.
Clinton holds a similar nine-point advantage over retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on the issue (49-40) and an eight-point edge over Sen. Ted Cruz (48-40) in the poll of 1,004 U.S. adults. Jeb Bush fares a bit better, trailing Clinton by a three-point margin on trust to deal with terrorism (46-43), while Marco Rubio trails Clinton by four points (47-43). Those last two differences don’t reach statistical significance.
Republicans fare better among registered voters, who typically tilt less Democratic. Clinton’s advantage slims or disappears against all Republicans but Trump. Fifty percent of voters say they trust Clinton more on terrorism, while 43 percent prefer Trump.
Trump’s business background could be a source of weakness in debates over foreign policy and terrorism, but his lower standing on trust to handle terrorism could also reflect his more negative image in general. A Post-ABC poll before the Paris attacks found 59 percent of Americans said they had an unfavorable impression of Trump -- the highest among Bush (55), Carson (32) and Rubio (37). Fifty-one percent held an unfavorable view of Clinton.
Clinton’s position of strength in the new Post-ABC poll is perhaps more striking given it also found a record high 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Obama is handling terrorism, and 57 percent disapproved of his handling of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Clinton owes her edge then, to a significant share of Obama detractors who nonetheless prefer her over Republicans. Tellingly, the poll found between one-quarter and one-third of those who disapprove of Obama's efforts dealing with terrorism also say they trust Clinton over Republican on the issue.
Beyond Obama's unpopularity on the issue, Clinton shaming of Republicans for opposing resettlement in America for Syrian war refugees is also at odds with majority opinion. Fifty-four percent in the new poll oppose bringing refugees to the U.S. even after screening them for security; 40 percent were "strongly" opposed.
Clinton's differentiation from Obama could become important if public views of his performance on terrorism – and as president overall – fail to improve. If they don’t, Republicans will almost certainly seek to tie the Democratic nominee to Obama’s performance.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted Nov. 16-19 among a random national sample of 1,004 adults reached on cellular and conventional telephones by live interviewers. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.