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How Will U.S. Voters React To The Paris Attacks?

The terror attacks in Paris on Friday will have diverse, global consequences. And although the effects on the U.S. presidential election are far from the most important, they do exist. So while Paris isn’t principally an election story, this week’s politics Slack chat deals with how the attacks might alter the 2016 campaign. As always, the transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Since the terror attacks in Paris, political analysts have put forward a number of — sometimes contradictory — theories of how the attacks will upend the Republican and Democratic presidential nomination contests. It does seem safe to say, at least in the short term, that foreign policy and national security will be paramount campaign issues. But what effect will the attacks have on the election long term? Let’s take these theories one by one:

Effect No. 1: The attacks will elevate the “more serious” candidates, while hurting Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who currently sit atop national Republican polls.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): First, our thoughts are with the people of France and others who were affected by this terrorist attack. In terms of politics, any effect assumes that people are listening to the statements that candidates are making in the first place. Patrick Ruffini over at Echelon Insights ran a very interesting Google Consumer Survey this weekend and found that the vast majority of adults hadn’t even heard Jeb Bush’s statement about Syrian refugees on Sunday.

micah: So you don’t buy effect No. 1?

harry: I’m not saying that I don’t buy it. I’m merely saying that it’s difficult for anything any candidate says to break through. So I’m not sure that Carson or Trump not knowing what they’re talking about on foreign policy will make much of a difference.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): In the long run, it could elevate fitness-for-office, “red phone” types of questions. But it’s also possible that Republicans think of Trump, for instance, as being pretty darn presidential.

micah: So maybe we should differentiate between Carson and Trump?

natesilver: I guess I’m making a separate point, which is that the way that Acela Corridor elites see the candidates won’t necessarily match how voters see them. There were points during his rise four years ago that Newt Gingrich was viewed as highly “presidential” in polls, for instance.

With that said, it does seem as though the effects on Carson and Trump could be different, since Trump has placed so much more emphasis on national security.

Then again, the last Des Moines Register poll in Iowa found a plurality of Republicans calling Carson the “most presidential.”

harry: Here’s the thing: It will be very difficult to assign a Carson and/or Trump decline to any specific event. Most experts believed that Carson and Trump would not win the nomination anyway. Now, I think most people who analyze elections for a living believe the same thing.


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harry: What’s the correlation about having the finger on the nuclear button and the horse race?

micah: That data does suggest that there is a chance voters will be less willing to “gamble” on Trump.

harry: I’m not sure that I agree with that, Micah. Here’s why: Take a look at the nuclear button question: 26 percent say Carson is most trusted with the nuclear button, and Carson gets 28 percent in the horse race in that poll. Fourteen percent trust Trump most, and he gets 19 percent in the horse race. There just isn’t that large of a difference. Maybe Carson and Trump do a little worse, but it’s not that much worse.

natesilver: I agree that most of this is a “halo effect.” I’m reminded of four years ago when lots of Republican voters described Newt Gingrich as “presidential.” People tend to become attracted to candidates for reasons they find hard to articulate. If they like one thing about them, they tend to think everything else is pretty groovy about them as well.

harry: Yeah, voters find who they like and then say they like them on issue questions, not the other way around.

micah: Nate, you seem to be a little all over the map here?

natesilver: I think there are a number of possible effects that are somewhere between marginal and unpredictable.

On the margin, it’s probably unhelpful for Trump or Carson for “red phone” questions to be elevated. But it’s probably not a huge effect. Meanwhile, it’s probably helpful for Trump that Islamic State is a big part of the story, since he’s been talking about it way more than the other candidates.

micah: Effect No. 2: The attacks in Paris will sideline economic issues, hurting Bernie Sanders’s chances in the Democratic primary.

harry: That implies that Sanders’s chances were high to begin with. I don’t think it has a major impact on the Democratic race.

natesilver: Yeah. It’s definitely not the focus that Sanders would prefer, which is why his campaign was pushing back against talking about Paris so much in the debate on Saturday. But at this point, the Democratic race is basically about whether there’s a major scandal or some other shoe to drop on Hillary Clinton.

It’s bad for Sanders in the sense that it gives him less time to talk from his economic playbook while he has a national audience. And it’s that national conversation that may be his goal more than actually winning office.

harry: One thing I want to point out is that there was a Pew Research Center survey from May that found that nearly as many Democrats were “very concerned” about global warming as were “very concerned” about Islamic State, so the Sanders pivot to global warming in the debate on Saturday night made a lot of sense.


If this race were more competitive, then sure, Clinton is probably helped. A CBS News poll released last week showed Democratic primary voters were a lot more confident in her ability to handle an international crisis than Sanders’s, but this race is probably over anyway unless Clinton drops out or does something tremendously wrong.

natesilver: To be honest, though, I wonder if we’re not being too short-term focused. We live in a troubled world. The news cycle can turn over pretty fast. For me, the questions are more about what comes out of this. In particular, (i) whether there are repeat attacks; (ii) what effect Paris has on the conversation about refugees and immigrants; (iii) what sort of military action might be taken against Islamic State and how involved the U.S. would be.

harry: That’s an interesting point about immigration. That’s where the focus seems to be right now. We’re talking about refugees being accepted by different states. If you have paid any attention to this race so far, you know the major Republican candidate who has been the most forceful on immigration: Donald Trump. How is a fight about immigration not being fought on his turf?

natesilver: And it’s interesting how even moderate blue-state Republican governors, like Rick Snyder in Michigan and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, are talking about banning Syrian refugees. Definitely suggests that the debate on the GOP side is on Trump’s turf.

harry: At least for the time being — but again, the Iowa caucuses aren’t until Feb. 1.

micah: Effect No. 3: With the economy doing relatively well, Republicans have had to dance around a little to run a “challenger’s campaign” against President Obama (and, by the transitive property, the Democratic nominee). Since the attacks in Paris, GOP candidates have been unsparing in their criticism of Obama’s foreign policy. So if foreign policy stays a focus of the campaign, that helps the Republican nominee in the general election — especially because he or she can make the case against Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state too.

harry: Well, I sorta disagree with the premise of your question, but I agree with the larger point. As we previously talked about, I think (at least for now) the GOP is a slight favorite given the national conditions for 2016 if nothing else changes. Still, Pew found in July that — by a 10 percentage point margin — more Americans said the Republican Party was better able to handle a terrorist threat than the Democratic Party.

natesilver: As on the previous questions, I have some contradictory thoughts here. Sure, national security might be more of a Republican issue. But it may not be all that important an issue to voters, unless there’s an attack on the U.S. or the U.S. is putting a substantial number of troops on the ground somewhere. Even in 2004, in the shadow of both 9/11 and the Iraq War, only 19 percent of voters said terrorism was their most important issue, and 15 percent said Iraq.

Also, while at the margin a focus on national security might help Republicans, there are other marginal effects that could run in the opposite direction. In theory, there’s a rally-around-the-flag effect that could help the incumbent party (i.e., Democrats). And Clinton has more national security experience than the likely Republican nominees. With all that said, her defensiveness about national security during the debate changed my opinion about this some.

harry: Yes, but more Americans disapprove than approve of how Clinton handled her job as secretary of state, according to a recent YouGov survey:


I think on the whole it’s a net negative for Clinton for the focus to be on national security, especially given Benghazi. Americans are far more likely to disapprove than approve of her handling of that:


I agree with the larger point, though, that we don’t know what the focus of the race will be in a year, and it’s possible that this will not even be on the minds of most Americans then.

micah: Effect No. 4: A focus on national security hurts Marco Rubio’s chances because of his relative inexperience.

harry: Disagree. He’s one of the more hawkish of the bunch. If Republican voters become more hawkish in the wake of Paris, that helps Rubio.

natesilver: I think a more interesting question might be what it means for Jeb Bush.

harry: And what do you think it might mean for Jeb, Nathaniel Read Silver?

natesilver: It could plausibly cause some re-litigation of the Iraq War. (That also has reverberations for Clinton, of course.) Which is an interesting issue since there’s a huge split between the GOP and everyone else on the issue. Republicans still support the Iraq War 62-28, while independents are against it 26-65 and Democrats 16-78.

Perhaps related, a majority of Republicans favored using ground troops against the Islamic State even before Paris, while independents and Democrats did not.

harry: I’ll just say this on Bush: I don’t think he’ll win the nomination, but stuff like Paris proves why it’s stupid to dismiss (reasonable) candidates this cycle. Anything can change.

micah: All right, let me try to sum up the collective wisdom we’ve provided FiveThirtyEight readers in this chat:

It’s not clear how the attacks in Paris will affect the presidential race — and seeing how the attacks will have real, life-and-death consequences beyond politics — that’s where your focus should be.

harry: I think so, though this is an election issue. We just don’t know how it will affect the outcome as of yet.

natesilver: I mostly agree with that, Micah, but with the very important provision that the policy decisions that come out of Paris could have profound effects on both the campaign and the world.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.