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If Americans Perceive A World In Chaos, Will They Turn To Trump?

We’ll be reporting from Cleveland all week and live-blogging each night. Check out all our dispatches from the GOP convention here.

CLEVELAND — The mood here in Cleveland is a little bleak. The city still has its share of vibrant neighborhoods, but it can feel awfully empty. The city accommodated a population of more than 900,000 in 1930, but Cleveland has fewer than 400,000 residents today. (Imagine if more than half the people in your town just vanished.) Then there’s the convention, and the security presence it brings, with downtown bisected by a maze of fences and patrolled by a phalanx of police, sheriffs and Secret Service personnel. Conventions don’t have the party atmosphere of major sporting events or ticker-tape parades; they’re stiffly staged, anxiety-inducing events, and most locals are staying away.

Donald Trump’s campaign, of course, has also struck a foreboding tone. It’s typical for the opposition party to dramatize the country’s problems, as a critique of the incumbent president’s performance. But not since Richard Nixon has a major-party candidate so explicitly run on a law-and-order theme, or so determinedly argued that the world is spinning out of control.

Polls suggest that many Americans agree with Trump: About 70 percent of them say the country is on the wrong track, and the percentage has gradually climbed this year. There’s also some contradictory evidence. A plurality of Americans say they’re better off personally than they were eight years ago, for instance, and President Obama’s approval ratings are decent, the highest they’ve been since after his re-election in late 2012.1 But put those doubts aside for a moment and assume that most Americans really do agree with Trump’s diagnosis of the problem and that they’re anxious in a way that they haven’t been since the Sept. 11 attacks. Does that mean they think Trump is the solution? Or will there be a flight to the safety of Hillary Clinton? It isn’t so clear.

I compiled data from the most recent telephone polls by ABC News, Bloomberg Politics, CBS News, CNBC, CNN, NBC News, Pew Research Center and Quinnipiac University, all conducted since the California primary on June 7. Each of them asked respondents whether they preferred Trump’s or Clinton’s approach on a series of major issues — for instance, terrorism and immigration. The items that were mentioned in at least three surveys are included in the table below.

Race relations 62% 27% Clinton +35
Foreign policy 57 33 Clinton +24
Health care 52 34 Clinton +18
International crisis 54 36 Clinton +18
Middle class 48 36 Clinton +12
Immigration 50 41 Clinton +9
Trade 46 42 Clinton +4
Guns 43 41 Clinton +2
Terrorism 44 47 Trump +3
Economy/jobs 41 48 Trump +7
Who will Americans trust if the world is in crisis?


Trump has a narrow edge on terrorism (and it grows a bit larger if polls ask about the Islamic State group specifically). But Clinton has an almost 2-to-1 advantage on foreign policy and on the handling of race relations. She leads by 18 percentage points on handling an unnamed international crisis. She also has an edge on immigration, which Trump has tried to tie to terrorism and crime. Neither candidate has an advantage on guns. Recent polls haven’t asked explicitly about crime.

One can also look at how head-to-head results between Clinton and Trump have changed as various frightening events have taken place around the world and in the United States, but they don’t tell a consistent story. In the Republican primaries, Trump appeared to gain after the San Bernardino and Paris terrorist attacks. But the general election may be different. Trump got some of his worst polls of the year shortly after the Orlando terrorist attack last month. He has drawn closer to Clinton recently, after shootings of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but the impetus for that may be the renewed focus on Clinton’s email server instead.

An increasing number of these events have involved multiple threads that provide talking points for all sides: Orlando was a terrorist attack, but also a mass shooting and a hate crime, for instance.

So we simply don’t have a lot of evidence yet about which candidate would benefit from further domestic and international crises or the perception that the world is in chaos. And in some ways, with Trump having committed to the law-and-order strategy, the major strategic choices belong to Clinton. Does she pursue an LBJ-in-1964 strategy, suggesting that a tumultuous world requires her experience and steadiness of hand? Does she present a happier and more hopeful face, on the assumption that (as some studies have claimed) the more optimistic message usually wins? Or could she get stuck in between?


  1. The lived reality may also contradict the perceived one. Crime is near historically low levels, though the murder rate has increased in some major cities.

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