In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis committed campaign suicide when, in a photo op, he oddly popped out of the top of a U.S. military tank while wearing a helmet. Reporters on-site reportedly broke into laughter. Voters were largely turned off. It was an ill-conceived, goofy image that became political lore for future campaign operatives, who would warn colleagues: “Let’s not pull a Dukakis here.”
But the doomed appearance was really just a visual exclamation point for a much deeper problem facing Dukakis and his fellow Democrats. Throughout the 1980s, and really going back to the failed presidential bid of George McGovern in 1972, voters found the Democrats soft on national defense. Fear of an attack by the Soviet Union (or even the rampant, unimpeded spread of Communism) had Americans worried.
The prevailing feeling at the time was that Republicans, particularly the likes of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush, provided the courageous thinking and global bravado that kept America and the world safe; whereas Democrats wanted to slash defense spending and thus weaken the U.S. Democrats generally boasted that more spending on nuclear or similar weapons was a waste of money — proclamations that did not make the average citizen feel safer in a period that was smothered with tension. Polling at the time found Bush leading Dukakis by margins of 2–1 on who would best secure our national defense.
Fast forward to the present, and it appears a new security-related concern has emerged to occupy the minds of Americans — and this time the worry is terrorism. And once again it looks like Democratic leaders may be failing to take actions that would assuage voter angst.
The American electorate is genuinely fearful of terrorism, and growing more so by the day. In fact, not only has Americans’ fear of becoming a victim of terrorism been growing the last few years, but it is now at its highest point since the 9/11 attacks:
And just like the concern Americans had back in the ’80s, the increasing uneasiness created by the shadow of terrorism looks to be largely void of partisanship. Republican voters (and often independents) have always been vocal and consistent in their worry about terrorism and its effects, but now Democratic voters have joined them. In the middle of primary season last year, Democrats cited “Defending the country from terrorism” as the third-most-important priority facing the nation, just behind improving education and strengthening the economy. Defending against terrorism outscored dealing with climate change (a party staple) by a weighty 16 percentage points.
But as voters continued to amplify their anxiety around the threats they felt terrorism posed, Democratic politicians seemed to be tone deaf. Voters last summer — even those supporting nominee Hillary Clinton — suggested they wanted to hear more during the upcoming presidential debates about what the candidates would do to keep America safe from terrorism. More, in fact, than about any other single topic, including economic growth, gun policy, health care, or climate change.
It wasn’t that voters didn’t care about those other issues — clearly they did — but they really cared about terrorism. And perhaps rightly so, as jihadist-related terror activities have grown meaningfully over the last several years:
But in 2016, Clinton and the Democrats seemed either ignorant of the situation or unable to properly address it. Consequently, the awareness deficit seemed to play out in the November presidential election, where terrorism angst ran high with voters in most key states, yet Clinton’s support among terrorism-focused voters generally ran quite low.
Nationally, exit polls the day of the election showed “the economy” to be the most important issue on voters’ minds (as it always is), with 52 percent citing it as the top issue. But coming in a strong second was “terrorism,” with 18 percent of voters naming it as the most important issue. (By comparison, in the 2012 election, terrorism didn’t even make the list.) And among those 18 percent of voters, 57 percent voted for President Trump, whereas only 40 percent voted for Clinton.
If you multiply those figures together, you see that 10.3 percent of all voters felt terrorism was the most pressing issue and voted for Trump, while 7.2 percent of all voters felt terrorism was the most important issue but voted for Clinton. That 3.1-percentage-point difference was a significant deficit for Democrats to overcome, and it is even more telling when you look at it on the state level.
Here’s how some key states compared, and the news is not good for Democrats.
The first thing you notice is that Trump won terrorism-focused voters in almost all of these states. Only in California did these voters favor Clinton — and even there they just barely favored her. Even reliably blue states such as Washington, New Mexico, and New Jersey, which went to Clinton overall as expected, still saw their voters who prioritized terrorism actually favor Trump. And for predictably red states, the margin favoring Trump was overwhelming.
Perhaps even more troubling for Democrats were the six key “Swing” states and three “Surprise” states. Of those nine states, seven scored at or above the previously mentioned 3.1-point national margin for Trump among voters who prioritize terrorism. This suggests the Democrats’ message on fighting terrorism was even less effective in Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania than it was nationally — and in Florida it was just as bad.
Why does this matter? For many of these key states, the margins of victory were exceedingly slim for the winning candidate. Take Florida, for instance. Trump won the overall vote by 1.2 points, and among the 26 percent of voters who cited terrorism as the key issue, Trump won 55 percent to 43 percent — a margin that translates to 3.1 points in the overall vote. If Clinton had just cut that gap by half, it would have tipped the scales.
But therein lies the rub. Americans of all party affiliations have sent strong signals they are acutely worried about terrorism, and they are generally not trusting of Democrats to do something about it. Even in traditional Democratic strongholds, Democrats are losing the argument.
And while many may find the rhetoric of then-candidate Trump (such as “bomb the sh** out of them”) crude or naïve, it clearly got the attention of the electorate. Particularly as Clinton often responded to Trump by accusing him of aiding the cause of ISIS, rather than coming across as forceful against terrorists herself.
Americans really, really care about the threat of terrorism right now, and Democrats have failed to read the tea leaves on this. Defeating terrorism shouldn’t be a partisan issue. If Democrats want to take an approach they believe to be more thoughtful or safer for the global community and our foreign interests, that’s one thing. But they must also learn to show strength and make Americans feel secure if they wish to start winning more elections.