What the Syrian Refugee Crisis Means for the 2016 Election

By Elizabeth McElvein
Monday, March 28, 2016, 3:41 PM

The attacks in Brussels on Tuesday morning are a harrowing reminder that global threats to liberal democracy are born domestically as well as abroad. It is incumbent upon lawmakers in Europe and in the United States to respond to concerns about public safety and to put forth a viable strategy to combat violent extremism over the long-term. In a recent post, Brookings senior fellow Daniel Byman argues that serious debate about national security should focus on ensuring the social, economic, and political integration of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. If refugees cannot be integrated into local communities, Byman writes, anger and disaffection will fester and create communities that are unwilling to cooperate with security agencies. Instead of considering integration as a national security imperative, Byman laments, debate about the refugees revolves around questions of terrorism. Framed this way, lawmakers indulge immediate anxieties about safety at the expense of long-term national security.

Byman may be right as a matter of national security policy, but public opinion matters a great deal to elected officials, especially in an election year. Public opinion, after all, tends to establish the parameters of discussion for the candidates vying to become the next commander in chief, and it thus also tends to define the parameters of the politically possible. And the public has moved on the issue, shifting from humanitarian sympathy towards national security anxiety over the last few months. If you want to understand why the foreign policy debate in the 2016 presidential election sounds the way it does, and not like Byman’s article, take a look at the polls.

As recently as September 2015, a CNN/ ORC poll found that 83 percent of Americans thought the United States should provide direct humanitarian assistance to the refugees fleeing to Europe. The same poll found that a solid majority (73 percent) favored U.S. involvement in search and rescue missions for refugees stranded in the Mediterranean Sea. A Pew Research Center poll conducted the same month found slim majority (51 percent) support for the Obama administration’s proposal to accept 10,000 refugees into the United States. What’s more, 44 percent of survey respondents thought that the United States should do more to deal with the crisis, while just 19 percent thought the country should be doing less.

Public opinion began to shift, however, in the wake of November 13 terror attacks in Paris. Asked about the best approach to take with refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, 53 percent of Americans said that the United States should stop accepting refugees altogether; this figure included 69 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats. Eleven percent of Americans, including 9 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans, reported that the United States should accept Christians only. Humanitarian concerns did not altogether disappear. When asked to consider the process by which the U.S. government vets migrants, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that a slim majority (53 percent) believed refugees should be admitted to the United States if they successfully completed a security clearance process.

Concern for national security and personal safety became paramount after the December 2 terror attacks in San Bernardino. In the days following the attack, 83 percent of those polled by Quinnipiac University thought a major terrorist attack was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to occur in the U.S. in the near future. Although just 16 percent reported that terrorists hiding among Syrian refugees posed the greatest threat to U.S. security, a majority (52 percent) again opposed accepting refugees into the United States.

By the end of 2015, the specter of terrorism loomed large in the consciousness of the American people. When asked to identify the most important or personally defining news events of the year, an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll found that respondents most frequently chose the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. This coincided with an increasingly defensive public mood: 65 percent of respondents were concerned that they or someone they loved would be the victim of a terror attack and 63 percent believed the United States was losing the war against ISIS. Fully 78 percent favored American military action against ISIS, and 42 percent favored putting U.S. boots on the ground, in addition to airstrikes. Just 12 percent thought the United States should take no military action.

Although public opinion data about the refugee crisis has not been reported in 2016, a February Gallup poll indicates that a majority of Americans are concerned by the situation in Syria and support U.S. military involvement in the conflict. 90 percent of Americans identified the conflict as posing a critical or important threat to the vital interests of the United States. 63 percent support some degree of U.S. military involvement in Syria and just over a third (34 percent) of respondents favored a greater role for the United States military. This sentiment is shared across the political spectrum, breaking down to 71 percent of Republicans, 56 percent of Independents and 62 percent of Democrats favoring military involvement.

Americans’ hawkish temperament represents a tectonic shift in public opinion, especially when compared to public mood just eight years ago. At that time, then-Senator Obama campaigned as a peacemaker. The change underscores the impact of high profile events and the plasticity of public sentiment—a quality that may in the longer term be kind to Byman’s calls to refocus national debate on the refugee crisis. Insofar as a majority of Americans remain concerned about personal safety and national security, however, candidates seem certain to respond to the public’s hawkish temperament.