Donald Trump took full advantage of the opportunity Monday to return to blasting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for failing to keep the country safe in the wake of this weekend’s bomb attacks in New York City. And Clinton jumped on the news to prosecute her own case against Trump: that he is a dangerous demagogue whose inflammatory rhetoric puts the nation at further risk.
The polls offer a more nuanced picture. Voters trust Clinton over Trump by a narrow margin when it comes to terrorism and national security — a reversal from past elections when Republicans were seen as the party stronger on national defense. But that’s not the end of the story: Trump’s supporters are far more concerned about terrorism than Clinton’s, suggesting the GOP nominee could appeal to voters who are increasingly anxious about safety at home.
The attacks this weekend present a new backdrop to the one-week run-up to the first general-election debate — a one-on-one showdown on national television between Clinton and Trump, held fewer than 30 miles from the scene of an explosion on the west side of Manhattan that wounded more than two dozen people on Saturday evening.
Both candidates on Monday sought to reinforce their credentials on terrorism and spin it into an advantage. Clinton held a press conference at a suburban New York airport before traveling to Philadelphia, calling herself “the only candidate in this race who has been part of the hard decisions to take terrorists off the battlefield.”
Trump, meanwhile, responded with a statement on Facebook, saying Clinton “has emboldened terrorists all over the world to attack the U.S., even on our own soil,” adding that terrorists “are hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton becomes [p]resident — so that they can continue their savagery and murder.”
Overall, polls conducted prior to this weekend give the Democratic nominee a slim advantage on the issue. In last week’s Fox News poll, Clinton edged Trump among likely voters asked who would do a better job handling terrorism and national security, 47 percent to 46 percent. Among registered voters surveyed by CBS News/New York Times over a similar time period, 49 percent trusted Clinton more on national security and terrorism — which rated a close second to the economy and jobs on a list of most-important issues — compared to 45 percent for Trump.
In a Quinnipiac University poll last week, 49 percent of likely voters said Clinton would do a better job “keeping the country safe from terrorism,” while 47 percent said Trump would do a better job. And in an ABC News/Washington Post poll this month, half of registered voters said they trust Clinton more to handle terrorism, more than the 41 percent who trust Trump — though that margin narrows to 48 percent for Clinton to 45 percent for Trump among likely voters.
Clinton, multiple polls show, is viewed as having experience and as the better informed, more stable leader. In the Fox News poll, 61 percent of likely voters say the former secretary of state is “qualified to be president,” far more than the 45 percent who say Trump is qualified. Fifty-nine percent think Clinton “has the temperament to serve effectively as president,” compared to only 38 percent who say Trump is temperamentally fit.
But voters also see Trump as a decisive candidate who will tell it like it is and is more committed to attacking the Islamic State in the Middle East. In a slightly older CNN/ORC International poll, conducted over the first four days of this month, half of voters said the phrase “a strong and decisive leader” applied more to Trump than the 42 percent who said it applied to Clinton. (That poll, the only live-caller national poll Trump has led since the conventions, also found Trump ahead on the issue of terrorism, 51 percent to 45 percent.
Clinton’s slight edge on terrorism and national security in most polls reverses what was a traditional Republican advantage. For decades, voters have seen the GOP and its presidential nominees as stronger on defense.
As an incumbent in 2004, then-President George W. Bush enjoyed a sizable advantage on terrorism over then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). A CBS News/New York Times poll in early October of that year found more voters had confidence that Bush (52 percent) would make the right decisions when it came to protecting against a terrorist attack than had confidence in Kerry (39 percent).
Barack Obama faced a similar gap in the 2008 campaign against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was lauded as a Vietnam War hero and has focused on defense issues during his time in the Senate. Voters throughout the campaign trusted McCain over Obama on terrorism, according to ABC News/Washington Post polls, though the gap between the two candidates narrowed toward Election Day.
In 2012, Obama, with the benefit of incumbency and the killing of Osama bin Laden the year before, grabbed the advantage that year over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Obama was generally more trusted on foreign policy, according to data from the Pew Research Center, and exit polls showed more voters trusted Obama to handle an international crisis than Romney.
But even though more voters, on average, trust Clinton over Trump on terrorism, rising unease about more attacks could benefit the Republican. Prior to this weekend, Trump voters were far more concerned about terrorism: In last week’s Quinnipiac University poll, a combined 79 percent of likely voters said it was “very” or “somewhat” likely that there would be a terrorist attack in the U.S. “in the near future … causing large numbers of lives to be lost.” (No one was killed in this weekend’s incidents.)
Virtually all of Trump’s supporters, 96 percent, said it was at least “somewhat likely” there would be an attack in the near future, including a 57-percent majority who said it’s “very likely.” But just 64 percent of Clinton backers said it was likely, and only 19 percent said it was “very likely.”
That anxiety extends to voters’ own lives. A combined 47 percent of likely voters said they are at least “somewhat concerned” that they or someone in their family “will be the victim of a terrorist attack” — with, again, a sharp break by the presidential candidate they support. More than two-thirds of Trump’s voters, 68 percent, said they were at least “somewhat concerned” about being the victim or someone in their family being the victim of a terrorist attack — while only 29 percent of Clinton supporters were concerned about it.
This has also been a traditional Republican advantage: Voters most concerned about terrorism have tended to support the GOP ticket in large numbers. In 2008, McCain defeated Obama among the quarter of Americans who were “very worried” about a terrorist attack in the United States, 54 percent to 43 percent, according to the exit poll.
But in the past two elections, terrorism hasn’t been a major issue for voters. In that 2008 exit poll, only 9 percent of voters said terrorism was the most important issue, and McCain won them overwhelmingly, 86 percent to 13 percent.
The 2012 exit poll didn’t even ask voters about terrorism, though a September 2012 Pew survey found Romney voters (68 percent) were significantly more likely than Obama voters (55 percent) to say terrorism was “very important” to their vote.
The last time terrorism was a significant factor in a presidential campaign, the Bush-Kerry race in 2004, 19 percent of voters in the exit poll rated it as their most important issue. Bush carried them by 72 points, 86 percent to 14 percent.