Can the GOP Scare Its Way Into the White House in 2016?

During Tuesday night's GOP "national security and terrorism" debate, CNN's Wolf Blitzer made the hysterical claim that "Americans are clearly more afraid today than at any time since 9/11."

This may sound generically true, but it's actually off by a factor of three. After 9/11, 46% of Americans listed terrorism as their most important issue; the number is roughly 16% today. While Blitzer's claim was equal parts fear-inducing nonsense and equal parts glib, it is true that the Paris and San Bernardino attacks have America falling back to Bush-era levels of panic, but it's comparable to 2005 (after the London bombing of 7/7), not post-9/11. 

According to a new Gallup poll measuring Americans' number-one concerns, the percentage of people who think terrorism is the most pressing issue facing the United States shot up from 3% to 16% since early November, before the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. When one combines "terrorism" with "ISIS" and "national security," the percentage of voters who think this broad category is the most important issue facing America shot up from 7% to 27% since early November—providing a meaningful shift in the country's collective mindset that will no doubt color the upcoming election.

Views of Terrorism as the Most Important U.S. Problem Since October 2001

What does all this mean? 

For the Republican Party it's clearly manifesting in an increase in xenophobia and racism. The percent of Republicans who put "terrorism" as their number-one concern went from 4% to 24% since early last month. This has translated into calls by most leading GOP candidates and an overwhelming majority of Republican governors to halt potential Syrian refugees from coming into the U.S. While the Democrats have largely stayed firm in their pro-refugee stance (with some notable exceptions), Republicans have grown more callous in their posturing,with all leading GOP candidates calling for either a "pause" to Syrian refugees or a religious litmus test for acceptance. Today a "moderate" position in the GOP is halting Muslim refugees while allowing Christians. 

Increased fears of terrorism also play into the hands of arch-xenophobe Donald Trump, who has called for Muslims to be tracked, mosque to be closed and the murder and torture of terror suspects' families. All of this bloviating has only increased his numbers, with recent polls showing the businessman with a commanding 38% of potential Republican voters. If Trump's surge is animated by America's darkest nativist id, what happened in Paris and San Bernardino will no doubt cement his frontrunner position.

To play catchup at the CNN debate Tuesday night, Cruz and Rubio doubled down on their tough talk with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt baiting Texas senator Ted Cruz into "carpet bombing" Raqqa—the nominal "capital" of the Islamic State—in a cruel contest of tough-guy oneupmanship. It's unclear if their attempts to out-Trump Trump will pan out, but Trump's lead has remained virtually unchallenged in six months and there's little reason to suspect this will change before the January primaries. 

Terrorism is moving the GOP right, but Clinton out-polls them on the issue

Polls find that Hillary Clinton is still the most trusted candidate on "terrorism." Despite the fact that the public's perception of Obama's handling of terrorism has plummeted to new lows, according to a November Washington Post-ABC poll, Clinton leads all GOP candidates in "fighting terrorism" (though it should be noted the poll was taken after Paris, and before San Bernardino).

This post-Paris poll also shows that the Snowden-era reforms are all but politically dead, with a 72% majority saying the federal government should investigate possible terrorist threats even if doing so violates personal privacy, a 9% percentage point increase since January 2015 and the highest level since 2010. Clinton has been a hardline defender of such programs, despite the fact that no evidence exists they actually work to terror attacks. This hard turn away from civil liberties concerns could also help explain why Rand Paul's candidacy has fizzled out.

Fears of ISIS will probably help GOP in the long run

Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight used recent election data to show the rise of terrorism as a potent political issue will ultimately help the Republican Party, since the party generally out-performs the Democrats:

In 12 presidential elections since 1956 with polling available (we’re missing 1992, 1996 and 2000), Gallup or CBS News asked Americans in the fall of the election year what the most important problem facing the country was. The pollsters then asked, “Which political party do you think can do a better job of handling the problem you think is most important — the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?" 

Every time Democrats have been trusted more on the people’s top issue, the Democratic presidential candidate won. Every time Republicans were more trusted, the Republican presidential candidate won. enten-terrorismfocus-1

Put another way, while Clinton may out-poll the GOP candidates on terrorism, voters generally trust Republicans more on this issue, which historically should work in their favor, though a lot could still change between now and November 2016.

Stacked deck

One the problems is that the idea of terrorism is narrowly defined in a racist, xenophobic way that suits the GOP. This is a stacked deck that CNN advanced Tuesday night when it hosted a debate that was, in part, about "terrorism," yet failed to mention Dylann Roof's anti-black terror attack that left nine dead in Charleston, SC or Robert Dear's anti-choice terror attack that left three dead at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO.

Gun violence, in general, is far deadlier than terrorism in the U.S., yet the issue doesn't generate nearly the same panic—a disconnect the Democrats thought they could expose with recent attempts to lump the issues of terrorism and gun violence together by tethering weapon purchases to the no-fly list. It remains to be seen if this approach will bear political fruit, but as of now in the battle between America's terrorism id and pubic safety common sense, the former appears to be winning in a rout. 

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