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Voters Turn To Trusted Authorities After Terrorist Attacks

It was a scary and eventful weekend, with an explosion in New York City, an improvised explosive device detonated on the Jersey Shore, a pipe bomb found in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and a stabbing spree in a shopping mall in Minnesota. Authorities are still figuring out what happened and how, if at all, some of these incidents were connected. But with about 50 days to go before the presidential election, how does a weekend like this affect the outcome in November?

There’s been a lot of speculation about that question today, but it’s just that — speculation. There’s just not enough data to say with any confidence how the events of the weekend will affect the polls. Donald Trump’s support in Republican primary polls rose in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in late 2015, but it’s difficult to tease out causality there. And his support didn’t budge after the bombings in Brussels in March.

Late-breaking news events are often treated like they will automatically have an impact on presidential races — hence the trope of the “October surprise.” But late in a campaign, voters’ impressions of the candidates are more established. Moreover, what we do know about how voters react to terror threats relies heavily on experimental studies — it’s not clear how these lessons apply during an election, especially with these particular candidates. Hillary Clinton has, obviously, more experience than Trump, and polls show Americans trust her more than Trump to deal with a whole host of crises. But on terrorism, voters are more evenly split — Trump has built his candidacy around a hard line on immigration with particularly tough talk about Muslim immigrants, which would seem to play right into fear-based narratives about terrorism.1

In short, there are a lot of variables, but here’s what we do know about the impact of terrorism on electoral politics.

  • Terror threats do affect citizens’ political decision-making. After conducting a series of experiments in the United States and Mexico, Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister found that anxiety about terrorism affected people’s feelings on a wide range of issues because citizens experienced decreased social trust, leading them to embrace more authoritarian attitudes, including hostility to what social scientists call “out-groups” like immigrants or members of the LGBTQ community. In their 2015 book, “Anxious Politics,” Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian found that showing respondents news stories about terrorism raised their levels of anxiety, which in turn changed some of their policy preferences. The effect they found, however, was that while support for militaristic policies like defense spending increased, that was not accompanied by higher levels of support for border security spending.
  • But voters don’t focus on safety and security in a vacuum. A study by Samuel Best, Brian Krueger and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz found considerable anxiety about government surveillance in the electorate, which shapes attitudes toward counter-terrorism measures like wiretapping, national ID cards and facial scans. While the security vs. liberty frame is common, a paper by Kevin Lanning and Ari Rosenberg concluded that equality is also part of the story — citizens’ beliefs that people should be treated equally, regardless of religion or ethnicity, weigh against the demand for increased security.
  • Islamophobia is real and politically relevant. Fifty-four percent of Republicans, according to Gallup, said they would not vote for a Muslim for president; 40 percent of Americans overall said the same. A Reuters/Ipsos survey of more than 7,000 Americans found that 37 percent — including 58 percent of Trump voters and 24 percent of Clinton’s backers — had an unfavorable view of Islam. That’s a substantial partisan difference, and one that’s likely to shape reactions to events like the ones over the weekend.
  • Terrorism has been a factor in previous elections. It helped George W. Bush win in 2004. The Iraq War divided voters, but more voters trusted Bush to handle terrorist threats, according to research by James Campbell. Campbell argued that this advantage, combined with the salience of terrorism in the years following 9/11, allowed Bush to perform better than expected based on economic evaluations.
  • Republicans “own” the issue of national security in general. We’ll never know how the Sept. 11 attacks would have affected an incumbent Democratic president. But numerous studies — including John Petrocik’s 1996 article — confirm that strong national defense tends to be associated with Republicans, while Democrats are at a disadvantage when the debate shifts to terrorism, defense or foreign policy. This has decidedly not been the case when it comes to foreign policy experts and this year’s contest between Clinton and Trump, however. Even foreign policy advisors for Republican administrations have abandoned Trump in favor of the Democratic candidate this time. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2016, it’s that voters are not always so responsive to elite cues. This combination of factors makes it hard to know how new events and threats might affect the election.

One consistent theme across much of this literature is that when voters feel threatened or insecure, they gravitate toward strong and trusted authority. The political environment this year suggests that these perceptions are very much shaped by partisanship. It’s difficult to imagine the Trump voter who switches to Clinton, or the Clinton voter who switches to Trump, in light of a terrorist incident.

Furthermore, with no incumbent president and with two candidates who have higher “unfavorableratings than typical presidential hopefuls, it’s not clear that, for that elusive undecided voter, there is an authority they trust on the ballot.


  1. A conceptual note is in order. “Terrorism” is a highly contested and controversial concept that carries with it implications about race and religion that are not always evenly applied to comparable incidents. Here, we use a simple and specific definition that corresponds closely to the way the term is used in political science research: violence committed against civilians for a political purpose.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”