Early this morning, as many Americans were just learning about this morning’s deadly terrorist violence in Brussels, Politico’s Blake Hounshell noted on Twitter, “America may be one major terrorist attack away from Donald Trump as president.” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes responded soon after that it’s a scenario that keeps him up at night.
This line of thought is not at all uncommon: in a general election, Trump, burdened by broad unpopularity, would start the race as an underdog, but many analyses have concluded that he could win the presidency anyway if voters are sufficiently terrified. It feeds into a conventional wisdom that suggest Republicans benefit politically in the wake of terrorism, and Trump specifically benefits even more.
But the conventional wisdom may not be entirely correct. Yes, Trump has seen a boost in GOP support after attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, but extrapolating to a national audience is a different story. I’m reminded of this Washington Post/ABC News poll we discussed around Thanksgiving – after the Paris attacks and when Americans were increasingly panicked about refugees.
A crescendo of tough talk on Syrian refugees and terrorism seems to be elevating the toughest talkers in the GOP primary – most notably Donald Trump. But among the broader American public, the most trusted person to handle the issue is Hillary Clinton. […]By 50 percent to 42 percent, more Americans say they trust Clinton to handle the threat of terrorism than Trump, who leads the Republican field and responded to the Paris terrorist attacks by calling for heightened surveillance of mosques and redoubling his opposition to allowing Syrian refugees to settle in the U.S.
Clinton’s eight-point advantage over Trump wasn’t unique: the same poll showed the Democratic frontrunner also leading the other GOP contenders when respondents were asked, “Who would you trust more to handle the threat of terrorism?”
It’s not the only data available on this. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted this morning, “A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that only 30 percent of Americans think Trump is ‘ready to be Commander in Chief,’ while 60 percent say he isn’t. For Hillary Clinton, those numbers are 46-45.”
As we discussed several months ago, Democrats may be at a perceived disadvantage on matters related to national security generally, but Clinton, if she’s the Democratic nominee, will have more foreign-policy experience than any other presidential candidate in a generation. All of the remaining Republican candidates are either literal or practical amateurs on international affairs.
If the question is one of preparedness, it’s a test the former Secretary of State passes easily.
All of this matters, of course, because of the degree to which it challenges preconceived ideas about which issues benefit which parties. Republicans widely believe they benefit most when elections focus on the issues where they’re strongest: national security, foreign policy, counter-terrorism, etc. Just so long as voters overlook their discredited ideas and track record of foreign-policy failure – and in Trump’s case, the fact that he’s painfully clueless – GOP officials are certain they’re on firmer ground when voters’ attention moves away from the economy, health care, education, and the environment.
But there’s some evidence that suggests Clinton’s resume is unique, and with her background comes an ability to speak with authority on an issue Republicans claim as their own. It changes the electoral dynamic in ways the political world may not have fully digested yet.