The impact of the Orlando killings on the US presidential campaign depends on whether swing voters perceive it as a terrorist attack inspired by the Islamic State (IS) or a hate crime driven by homophobia.
If the former, the advantage lies with Republican candidate Donald Trump, who has done well from Muslim bashing. If the latter, gun control and gender sensitivity will be the theme – and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s the beneficiary.
Trump has done well from terror before. He saw his poll ratings jump four percentage points after the IS attacks in Paris and Brussels and an additional three points after the IS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California.
It was then that he called for a ban on Muslim immigrants. He was denounced worldwide – but three-quarters of Republican voters supported his line and helped him win the nomination.
Trump has sung the same tune after Orlando. “Hillary Clinton wants to dramatically increase admissions from the Middle East, bringing in many hundreds of thousands during a first term – and we will have no way to screen them,” he said afterwards.
Clinton’s response was to speak of Orlando as an act of terror and hate, but also noting the need for gun control reform. Trump then seized on the fact she and President Barack Obama avoided the term “radical Islam” or any reference to gunman Omar Mateen’s religion. Clinton was forced to say “radical Islam” after being taunted by trump even while admitting she didn’t like the phrase.
This political correctness is sensible for Democrats, but goes down poorly with independent swing voters.
A poll in May saw Clinton far ahead of Trump on presidential leadership qualities, but nine percentage points behind when it came to handling the IS. Unsurprisingly, her staffers say she will soon issue a tough speech on handling the IS.
Trump will seek to capitalise on Orlando.
One, he will seek to rally Republican and right-leaning independent voters to his flag on security concerns. In particular, stem the leakage of votes to the free-market Libertarian Party.
Two, he will up his language against Muslims and Islamist terror generally. By raising this bogey just hours after the attack, Trump is already breaking a norm that candidates refrain from blame games just after a tragedy.
Three, he will seek to swing around Florida, which is among the biggest electoral states. Earlier this month, an Orlando Sentinel poll gave Clinton the state, 45% versus 42 % for Trump. This could now be in jeopardy.
It is still five months before election day, so Orlando will have plenty of time to fade from electoral concerns. But in the run up to the attack, with Trump still entangled in squabbles with fellow Republicans, Clinton had been slowly gaining ground in opinion polls.
After a brief moment when Trump was ahead by a few points, she is now ahead by over three percentage points. This momentum may now be arrested. The Republican candidate will seek to put it in reverse. The next few days will see whether calling for a ban on Muslims will fare better than a ban on guns with a terror-stricken electorate.