Politics & Policy

Do Democrats Really Care About Terrorism?

A recent poll suggests the answer is no.

In recent days some commentators have cited a poll conducted by Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg to suggest that loyal Democratic voters are not as viscerally opposed to the war in Iraq as the success of Howard Dean’s campaign might suggest.

Washington Post columnist David Broder says that all the attention given to Dean’s position on Iraq has helped create what Broder calls “the myth of antiwar Democrats.”

In fact, the findings of the poll–sponsored by Democracy Corps, the group founded by Greenberg, James Carville, and Robert Shrum–are a bit more complicated than Broder suggests. But what is perhaps more important is that most analysts have ignored what may be the poll’s most stunning finding.

The survey focused on Democrats who take part in the nominating process in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. And, Iraq aside, what it found was that Democrats, at least those who are most active in politics, simply don’t care about terrorism.

Just don’t care.

In one question, pollsters read a list of a dozen topics–education, taxes, big government, the environment, Social Security and Medicare, crime and illegal drugs, moral values, health care, the economy and jobs, fighting terrorism, homeland security, and the situation in Iraq–and asked, “Which concern worries you the most?”

In Iowa, one percent of those polled–one percent!–said they worried about fighting terrorism. It was dead last on the list.

Two percent said they worried about homeland security–next to last.

In New Hampshire, two percent worried about fighting terrorism and two percent worried about homeland security. In South Carolina–somewhat surprisingly because of its military heritage–the results were the same.

Democrats in each state were then given the same list of topics and asked to name their second-most concern. Fighting terrorism and homeland security still placed near the bottom of the list.

Then pollsters read two statements and asked respondents to react. The first statement was, “America’s security depends on building strong ties with other nations,” and the second was, “Bottom line, America’s security depends on its own military strength.”

In Iowa, 76 percent of those polled said they agreed with the first statement. Just 18 percent favored the second. In New Hampshire, 77 percent favored the first, and 17 percent the second. And in South Carolina, 56 percent favored the first statement, and 33 percent the second.

Given those opinions, one might expect Democrats to care little about the national-security credentials of their candidates. But the poll, surprisingly, found just the opposite.

Pollsters asked respondents which characteristics they believed would be most important in a candidate. While voters didn’t care about having a decorated war veteran as candidate–sorry, John Kerry and Wesley Clark–the one attribute they said is most important is that the candidate “has experience in foreign affairs, intelligence and national security.”

While some might take that to mean that Democrats want a tough, security-minded leader, the poll’s results in fact suggest that Democrats want a leader who has the ability to fight terrorism, but will not actually do it.

On Iraq, the party faithful’s feelings do not support the contention that the image of the antiwar Democrat is a “myth.” In fact, Democratic feelings on Iraq appear to be complicated, if not schizophrenic.

In one section of the survey, the Democracy Corps pollsters read two statements. The first said, “I want a Democratic nominee who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning,” and the second said, “I want a Democratic nominee who supported military action against Saddam Hussein but was critical of Bush for failing to win international support for the war.”

Democrats favored the second statement–59 percent in Iowa, 58 percent in New Hampshire, and 50 percent in South Carolina. Those are not huge margins, but seem to indicate some support for the war.

Yet in another portion of the survey, when pollsters asked Democrats how important it would be for a candidate to have “opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning,” 68 percent in Iowa said that was very or somewhat important.

In New Hampshire, the number was 59 percent, and in South Carolina it was a whopping 74 percent.

The message may be that Democrats at heart want a candidate who opposed the war all along, but sense that it would be more politically practical to support a candidate who straddled the issue.

Finally, the pollsters read respondents a series of position statements from four fictional candidates.

One said that “the Iraq war [has] hurt our country” but did not mention terrorism. Two others did not mention either the war or terrorism and instead stressed things like repealing the Bush tax cuts and reforming health care.

Just one fictional candidate said, “I am committed to fighting the war on terrorism and supported overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But we must abandon Bush’s go-it-alone policy and work with our allies so they provide more forces and bear more of the cost.”

That antiterrorism, modified-pro-war candidate finished next-to-last in Iowa and South Carolina–just a percentage point out of the bottom spot (he did a bit better in New Hampshire, for reasons that are not clear).

The bottom line is that if a Democrat wins the White House next year, and listens to his party’s most ardent supporters, he will simply shut down the war on terrorism.

Of course, no president would do that–or at least do so as abruptly as his followers might want–but the Democracy Corps poll suggests that, whatever else it is about, the 2004 election will decide whether Americans want to keep fighting terrorism or not.

Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill newspaper; this is an expanded version of a column which first appeared there.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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