Campaign 2016

Public Opinion on National Security: The End of the GOP's Advantage?

By Elizabeth McElvein
Tuesday, September 20, 2016, 1:55 PM

Normally, when a terrorist attack happens, the shakeup in public opinion is thought to help Republicans. And many commentators today are wondering whether the attacks in New York and New Jersey might thus help Donald Trump, as the San Bernadino attacks are believed to have done during the GOP primaries.

But these attacks actually come amidst some interesting polling about public opinion, the campaign and national security, and this polling points in a somewhat counterintuitive direction.

The GOP is actually losing ground as the better party to handle threats from abroad, according to the results of a recently released Gallup poll. More Americans say the Republican party will do a better job than the Democrats at protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats (47 to 40 percent), but the margin has decreased significantly since last year, when the GOP enjoyed a 16-point lead (54 to 35 percent).


“Americans have favored the Republican Party in all but two years since the question was first asked in 2002, though often by less than a majority,” writes Jim Norman, summarizing the Gallup results. Only once have Democrats eclipsed Republicans as the party better able to protect the country from foreign threats, and that was in September 2007, when 70 percent of Americans disapproved of President George H.W. Bush’s handling of the War in Iraq. Just one year later, the Republican Party made up for lost ground, leading Democrats by 7 points (49 to 42 percent). As recently as 2014, Republicans enjoyed a sizable 23-point lead over the Democratic party (55 to 32 percent).

In a presidential election year, public opinion of a party is difficult to disentangle from public opinion of the party’s nominee for president. The results of a New York Times poll released last Thursday indicate that Donald Trump ties or trails Hillary Clinton on questions of national security and foreign policy. Asked which candidate would better handle the jobs and economy, Clinton ekes out a razor-thin lead over Trump (49 to 47 percent). However, asked which candidate is better able to handle foreign policy, the former Secretary of State trounces her Republican opponent by 22 points (58 to 36 percent).

In an election in which nearly one-third (29 percent) of likely voters identify national security and terrorism as the most important issue facing the country, the decline in the share of Americans who believe the GOP is best positioned to protect the country from military threats does not bode well for Republican candidates—whether they’re campaigning for the White House or for election down-ballot.