Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
November 23, 2015
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Economy still likely to trump national security for voters

A mere two weeks ago, the economy was set to be the focus of the 2016 election. Candidates’ speeches were loaded with talking points about budget balancing, job creation and dumping Wall Street. When both parties were polled, the economy was at the top of the list of concerns—with “terrorism” and “national security” in the distance.

Following the terror attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of 130 people and injured at least 250, the talking points of presidential wannabes have completely shifted to military might and foreign affairs. Now, as the frenzy over the Islamic State and terrorism reemerges around the nation, it raises the question: Are the attacks really enough to turn this into a foreign policy election?

It’s a common understanding in politics that Americans don’t cast votes based on foreign policy–and numbers this political season have so far supported that.

In a Gallup poll released prior to the Paris attacks, only 3 percent of respondents said terrorism is the “most important problem facing this country today.” Three percent also said the same for international issues/problems and national security. Topping the list was the “economy in general” at 17 percent, followed by “dissatisfaction with government” at 15 percent.

However, those numbers shifted markedly the weekend after the attacks. A Reuters poll of roughly 1,500 Americans found that 17 percent now called terrorism their top concern — a nine-point jump from the same poll done in October, placing it and the economy as the top concerns on Americans’ minds.

The change is big for candidates who hope to distinguish themselves from the crowd by their foreign policy experience or war-hawkish rhetoric. It’s especially important to Republicans, whose voter base typically worries more about national security. An NBC-Wall Street Journal national poll from May found that twice as many Republicans as Democrats say national security is their top issue.

Because of that we quickly saw many GOP candidates over this past week making speeches and remarks on national security—hoping to gain advantage with voters. GOP candidates especially seemed to be attempting to out do each other when it comes to proving who is tougher on national security.

One GOP candidate is already standing out as American’s top choice to lead on the issue of terrorism. Another Reuters poll conducted between Nov. 16 and 17 found that of the entire field of the 2016 presidential hopefuls, 20 percent of 1,106 respondents opted for Donald Trump as the leader best fit to deal with terrorism.

However, an equal share of the electorate picked Hillary Clinton. And a Washington Post/ ABC News pollreleased Monday found that when respondents compared Clinton and Trump directly, the former Secretary of States actually was favored over the real estate mogul with 50 percent of respondents choosing her and 42 percent favoring Trump. That’s telling considering the Democratic front-runner also has a lot to gain by the news shift as it allows her to more directly talk about her experience at the State Department.

“I think we already know with high probability who the Democratic candidate is going to be—she’s not going to hide her foreign policy credentials she’s going to highlight them,” said Bill Galston, former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “The speech she just gave to the foreign council relations is arguably the most high profile speech she’s given today. I don’t think that’s an accident.”

Galston said it’s likely national security will continue to propagate the news as both party’s front-runners continue to use the Paris attacks to promote their experience.

“I have no idea if terrorism will not be the number one issue or the top three [by the election]. But if you have a Democrat willing to talk about her credentials and Republicans interested in exploiting their historical leg up on the issue, it’s not going to go away,” he said.

However, whether the shift will be a monthlong blitz or an issue that will morph the upcoming presidential campaign entirely? That’s something Galston isn’t convinced of.

“You don’t get foreign policy elections unless there’s just an overriding all-consuming foreign policy question. 2004 was pretty much a foreign policy election. It was framed by the decision to go into Iraq. I don’t think the current concern about terrorism will rise to that level,” he said. “It’s one thing to say 2016 will be a foreign policy election, which will be unlikely as long as wages and incomes remain the way it is. It’s a very different thing to say the threat of global terrorism is already on the voters radar screen and getting higher.”