The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s big, bold response to terrorism is a big bust with Americans

Hillary Clinton has reestablished her advantage over Donald Trump on dealing with terrorism following the candidates' very different reactions to the nation's largest-ever mass shooting in Orlando, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

By a 50-to-39 percent margin, more say they trust Clinton than Trump to handle terrorism -- similar to her 54-40 edge in March but wider than her narrow three-point edge in May after Trump became the Republican Party's presumptive nominee.

The latest shift stands in stark contrast to political impact of the last major terrorist attacks that colored U.S. politics. After the Paris and San Bernardino attacks in late 2015, Trump's proposal to ban Muslims entering the U.S. received wide support among fellow Republicans, and it helped bolster his support heading into the GOP nomination contest.

The latest poll numbers, of course, show how the larger electorate feels about Trump's handling of foreign policy and terrorism -- not just GOP voters. And it's yet another bad sign for Trump's presidential aspirations come November.

Clinton isn't the only Democrat to get a boost. President Obama's approval for handling terrorism went from 45 percent in June to 50 percent this month, ending a stretch of underwater ratings (more disapproval than approval) since early 2015. After the Paris attacks, Obama's approval mark on the issue dropped to a record-low 40 percent.

Clinton's advantage comes as the public expresses huge concern about lone-wolf terrorist attacks. More than eight in 10 Americans say they are concerned about lone-wolf terrorist attacks -- 53 percent are "very concerned" -- and two-thirds say they lack confidence in the government's ability to stop them.

Yet this intense concern did not boost Trump, who has made an at-all-costs approach to stopping terrorism his calling card. Even among those who are most concerned about terrorist attacks, the poll found Clinton with a slight edge on trust to deal with the problem, 49-43.

The poll also found significantly better reviews for Clinton's response to the Orlando shooting than Trump's. Overall, 46 percent said Clinton had the better response to the attacks, while 28 percent preferred Trump's and the rest had no preference. Clinton's response was also seen as better by a margin of 19 points in exuding confidence that she could handle the situation as president and by nine points in offering the best policy response.

After the attacks, Trump doubled down on his proposed ban on Muslim immigration -- an approach Clinton has highly criticized. Trump has since appeared to soften his approach to the ban -- targeting only certain countries with terrorism problems.

"Temperament" was Clinton's most obvious advantage over Trump after the attacks, with 59 percent saying Clinton's response was better on this attribute, compared with 25 percent for Trump -- a massive 34-point gap. After initially expressing concern for the dead and wounded as news of the shooting came out, Trump took credit for "being right on radical Islamic terrorism" and calling on Obama to resign if he does not say the words "radical Islam."

A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Hillary Clinton taking a double-digit lead over Donald Trump and a higher percentage of Americans saying she's qualified. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

A rare Democratic edge on terrorism

Clinton's renewed edge on handling terrorism overall puts her in especially good standing for a Democratic presidential candidate, given Republicans have tended to hold an edge on the issue since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In April of this year, a Pew Research Center poll found Republicans with a nine-percentage point edge in dealing with terrorist threats at home.

During previous campaigns, President Obama held a narrow seven-point edge over Mitt Romney on dealing with terrorism in April 2012, but during Obama's first election campaign, he trailed Republican Sen. John McCain by 14 points in June 2008. President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry were roughly even on this measure at this point in 2004 -- 47-48 -- though Bush regained a significant advantage through the summer and held on for the remainder of the campaign.

The survey shows Orlando provided a prime opportunity for Trump, with big majorities fearing future lone-wolf attacks and doubting the federal government's ability to prevent them.

Past campaigns show candidates' advantages in trust to handle issues can shift over the course of the campaign, and that may be the case with terrorism. Orlando represents a moment in which Clinton clearly had the advantage, but the coming months will test its durability whether Trump can hone his message in a way that connects with Americans deep concerns about the issue.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted June 20-23 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.