Terrorism rates as among the two or three key issues for voters in the United States presidential election. Hillary Clinton’s nomination speech sought to make it a foreign policy issue. Donald Trump’s merged it with his anti-immigrant stance.
While the economy is consistently the number one concern of US voters, terrorism and national security is never far behind. Among the most recent is a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June.
Registered voters, asked which issues were “very important” to them, put terrorism as number two (80%), four percentage points below the economy and just above foreign policy (75%). This was echoed in a NBC/WSJ poll in May and a CBS survey in April.
A May Gallup poll had terrorism and national security coming at a close number three (87%), topped only by the economy (92%) and jobs (89%).
Terrorism has risen as a voter concern following a surge in attacks in Europe and the US by people motivated by or under the orders of the Islamic State. The US, which had not experienced a successful Islamist terror attack on its soil since 2013, has had two attacks in seven months.
Accepting the Democratic party nomination on Friday, Clinton spoke of terrorism near the end of her speech and treated it as an overseas military and diplomatic effort against the IS.
“We will strike their sanctuaries from the air, and support local forces taking them out on the ground,” she said, as well as “disrupting” IS efforts to radicalise youth within the US via the internet.
Clinton’s main thrust was to position herself as calm and professional in the face of a threat as opposed to an impetuous and trigger-happy Trump: “America’s strength doesn’t come from lashing out. Strength relies on smarts, judgment, cool resolve and the precise and strategic application of power. That’s the kind of commander-in-chief I pledge to be.”
Trump, in his Republican National Convention speech, invoked terror in the third paragraph, saying that “the attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” He merged terror with recent race-based attacks on US police and his anti-immigrant stance. He spoke of banning migration from nations “compromised by terrorism” and, ex tempore, added the line “we don’t want them in our country”.
The polling evidence indicates Clinton’s message should have the greater resonance.
A Gallup poll asking Americans what would be the most effective action against terrorism in June saw “airstrikes against the IS” and “tighter screening” of visas sharing pole position, indicating Trump’s message has resonance. His most infamous proposal, preventing Muslims from entering the US, was a lowly number nine on the list.
Immigration overall does not get high numbers. The Pew Centre found that immigration was priority number six for registered voters, at 70%.
It also found that Clinton scored higher than Trump by nine percentage points when voters were asked which candidate would handle immigration better. And if foreign policy is seen as a key counter-terrorism tool, Clinton blows Trump away by a solid 14 percentage points.