CONCORD, N.H. — One week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Diane Lochocki drove with her boyfriend from New York to the New Hampshire State House. Ben Carson was filing for the presidential primary, and Lochocki, 78, wanted to see him. It was time for a new president, one who actually took the threat of radical Islam seriously.
“Terrorists are insidious people,” Lochocki said. “Your neighbor could be one and you wouldn’t know. I feel we should close our borders until we get the rest of the world under control. If that’s inhumane, then I’m inhumane. You think what you want.”
The attacks that killed 130 and injured more than 350 in France’s capital Nov. 13 changed the 2016 contest for president — by changing what voters worried about. Across the country, among both Republicans and Democrats, have come pronouncements of anger and fear not seen after the terrorist attacks in London or Madrid — or even, in some ways, after Sept. 11, 2001. Suspicion of Muslims and intolerance of refugees have exploded; so has criticism of President Obama’s handling of the terror threat.
A Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll Saturday confirmed it, with 42 percent of likely voters in New Hampshire’s upcoming GOP primary calling terrorism and national security the country’s most important issues. Before Paris, they’d worried most about the economy.
In more than two dozen interviews over the weekend in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Alabama, voters offered some clues as to why Paris has altered the consciousness so dramatically. They described feeling more afraid of the Islamic State, more horrified by the imagery of beheadings and other atrocities. They are uncomforted by Obama’s leadership. And with the pain of the Iraq war still weighing on the nation, they are even listening to the people who say the United States must send troops to the Middle East to fight the Islamic State.
But it was the refugee question that concerned them first and most.
“I feel safe now, but if we start letting in a bunch of people who are associated with the terrorists, that’s dangerous,” said Jeff Warcholik, a 41-year-old carpenter standing outside the State House in Concord on Saturday, craning his neck for a view of the candidate. He’d driven with his wife and son from Connecticut, where the Democratic governor was welcoming Syrian refugees when other states closed up.
“I don’t know what happened to democracy,” he said. “If you’re going to risk people’s lives, you should have a say in it.”
This weekend, as candidates barnstormed in the first primary states, the fear of terrorism dominated the questions they got from voters. Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina courted those questions, making eight weekend stops on behalf of the latter’s presidential campaign. As they trekked from VFW hall to diner to VFW hall, the senators were really selling a new military commitment in Iraq and Syria — 10,000 U.S. soldiers bolstering an allied (mostly Arab) force and crushing the Islamic State.
The presidential primary race, Graham said, could be cleaved between “before Paris and after Paris.”
“If you’re worried about going to the mall, you won’t worry if I’m president,” Graham said at a town hall in Manchester, N.H. “If you’re worried about your kids getting on the planes going home for Thanksgiving, you won’t worry if I’m president.”
Few voters saw Graham as the natural successor to the president, but plenty wondered what had been lost in seven years of the Obama presidency. His pre-Paris comment that the Islamic State had been “contained” weighed on them. Some couldn’t believe that he continued to argue for settling Syrian refugees in the United States. Every Republican candidate for president and even New Hampshire’s Democratic governor — a candidate for U.S. Senate — disagreed.
“I wonder what’s in his mind that’s not in mine,” Brian Moul, 66, asked after a McCain-Graham event in Manchester. “That concerns me — that really concerns me. He said, we’ve got them contained.”
Raymond Wieczorek, the 86-year old former mayor of Manchester, interjected with a laugh. “Oh, yeah — Iraq, Syria, France,” he said. “That’s where we’ve got them contained.”
Questions about Obama — his courage and even his basic interest in defeating the terrorists — permeated everything. In New England, where memories of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing are fresh, the Paris attacks sent voters wondering about what could disrupt their own lives. Old facts and stories tumbled forth from their memories. Didn’t the 9/11 hijackers get here legally? Didn’t the Tsarnaev brothers?
But the fear spread far beyond the places that terrorists had actually targeted. In his first TV ad, which debuted Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said bluntly that “what happened in Paris could happen here.” At a Saturday rally for Donald Trump, in Alabama, voter after voter described some hard new thinking about safety in the wake of Paris.
“I have never been fearful of anything in my life because I put my faith in God,” said Kathleen Jones, 58, a vice president at a medical equipment company. “But I went out this week and bought a pistol.”
In addition to getting a gun, Jones said she also canceled a trip to New York on Thanksgiving, feeling it was safer to avoid the big city after the attacks in Paris.
“How are we to determine if they are a good Muslim or ISIS? Unfortunately, we have to be cautious of all Muslims,” she said, agreeing with Trump’s call again Saturday for the country to reject Syrian refugees.
Jones said that in the wake of the 2001 attacks, she felt George W. Bush took strong action and even went to war. Now, under Obama, she said, “I don’t feel safe.”
Amber Jean Hyde, 27, said she feels less safe than after 2001 because she has seen the beheadings, the London bombings, the Paris attacks — and watched the “hate against Americans, against Christians, grow.”
“People are more afraid,” she said, adding she drove an hour from her home in Gadsden, Ala., to hear Trump.
Even the Democratic candidates for president, who had condemned the Trump-led call to freeze new refugee arrivals in the United States, confronted the heightened level of fear and anxiety as they made weekend campaign stops in South Carolina. Repeatedly, they addressed voters who intended to support them yet were also worried about infiltration.
At an event for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Orangeburg, S.C., the Democratic county treasurer, J. Steve Summers, said many of the Republicans are appealing to people’s base instincts. He saw no imminent terrorist threat. But he parted with Sanders, and the president, on whether Syrian refugees should keep flowing into the United States.
“I think they need to slow that down,” Summers said. “We don’t want to have thousands and thousands of people running in and out of here.”
There were risks in the refugee issue — and not just for Democrats. Both McCain and Graham argued that colleagues such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are using the no-refugees issue as a smoke screen to distract from their skepticism about fighting the Islamic State on the ground. But keeping refugees out isn’t enough to keep the country safe, according to McCain and Graham — and voters still need to be sold on that.
Town hall by town hall, the two friends and colleagues were trying to move voters from a general sense that the Islamic State needed to be defeated to a certitude that U.S. troops needed to be on the ground. That was not happening yet. Trump could promise to “bomb the s---” out of the Islamic State and get an ovation for what Graham saw as a laughable half-measure.
“People want to cheer for being tough,” Graham said. “When I say, ‘We need to go on the ground and kill every bastard we can find,’ I find that they cheer that, too. The Donald’s taking Obama’s approach and making it sound tough – but Obama’s approach doesn’t work.”
Republican voters needed no one to persuade them to distrust Obama — but GOP candidates kept trying anyway. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who held his 34th and 35th New Hampshire town halls this weekend, started both of them by saying that “Paris has changed this election.” Christie condemned a “weak, feckless” president. His crowds spilled out of the venues and, in quiet moments, the chatter was all about Paris.
“I was impressed with the president of France, very much so,” said Diane Bardorf, 65, before a Christie event at the Park Place Lanes bowling alley in Windham. “He got up and he said: ‘This is what we’re doing, this is not going to happen again.’ ”
Just 30 minutes into the town hall meeting, after he had called for aiding Arab armies “with arms, with training, with airstrikes,” Christie made Bardorf’s argument for her.
“Who would have ever thought we’d see the French pounding the war drums?” he asked. “The French president understands it a heck of a lot more than our president does. His people were killed. Look at his actions in the last week. He means business.”
The crowd was with Christie, and he piled on, paraphrasing an Obama adviser who had said that the United States would “see what the French do” before expanding military action against the Islamic State.
“I guarantee you one thing,” said Christie. “When I’m president of the United States, that’s a sentence you’ll never hear coming out of my mouth.”
Mary Jordan in Birmingham, Ala., and John Wagner in Orangeburg, S.C., contributed to this report.