The day after the Orlando shooting, GOP candidate Donald Trump railed against the president and warned Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S., while Democratic rival Hillary Clinton called for changes to gun laws. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton was a member of the Senate for eight years, serving on the Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities. She served as secretary of state for another four years — a tenure she'd like to summarize by pointing to that famous photo of her in the White House Situation Room on the night Osama bin Laden was killed.

Yet in recent polling, pitting her ability to address the threat of terrorism against that of a bombastic businessman from Manhattan, voters view the two about evenly.

Since the beginning of May, a number of polls have asked Americans who they think can do a better job in the fight against terrorism — a question made much more important in the wake of the deadliest terror attack on American soil since 9/11. Those polls have varied, showing, in one case, a wide preference for Donald Trump and, at others, a virtual tie.


The Post and our partners at ABC News have asked this question three times since November, the first time in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris that killed more than 130. In the first two polls, Clinton led Trump by wide margins on the question of ability to handle terror, thanks to stronger support for Democrats than Trump enjoyed from Republicans. In the most recent poll, though, the two were virtually tied on the subject.


Notice, though, that attitudes about who would be better track with polling preference. When Clinton had a big lead in our polls, she had a big lead on the question of terrorism. As the race has tightened, she doesn't. But it's not clear that the order of causality goes from concern about terrorism to preference for Trump; the odds are good that it points the other way.

Why? Because the trend in attitudes on terror attacks by party mirrors the overall polling trend. In the most recent survey, after the Republican contest was settled, Republicans have consolidated around Trump as the best alternative to Clinton on terror — and as a candidate. Democrats continue to be split on Clinton, in part because at the point that the poll was taken, the Democratic primary race was still theoretically up for grabs. In 2012, we saw a similar narrowing between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the issue as the Republican race reached its end. In February of that year, Romney trailed Obama by 16 points on the subject; by April, he trailed by only four.

Trump likely benefited more from the terror attacks that overlapped with the primaries than did his Republican competitors. FiveThirtyEight looked at this in March, but the graph below shows it well. Trump and Ben Carson were about tied at the moment of the Paris attacks; after, as one might have predicted, Carson tanked.


Americans are more worried about terrorism than they have been in the past, and Orlando is likely to heighten that tension. The fact that Trump is currently running even with Clinton on the issue — and even leading her in some polls, like Fox's and Gallup's — still seems like a positive for the soon-to-be Republican nominee. National defense has long been a Republican strength, but it's an issue where a Clinton-Trump matchup seems uniquely suited to favor the Democrat.

Thanks, no doubt, to skepticism about Clinton's effectiveness in her prominent roles, she has no such advantage at this point in the race.