With terrorism now a major issue, 2016’s potential for electoral volatility only increases. Terrorism adds a unique political variable to America’s presidential race. Sadly, as recent events show, it has the potential to remain a big issue — and possibly increase — over the next year.
Next year’s election has long promised unpredictability.
Politically, with no incumbents on the ballot, both parties must select new nominees. Both are also feeling increasing pressure from their respective wings. Such circumstances raise the chances of third party runs. And Republicans’ narrow Senate majority means its control could be in play too.
Policy-wise, the stakes are also high. Spending and taxes have increased over the last seven years, debt has more than doubled, and deficits are again projected to climb over the next eight years. These set the stage for major fiscal debates.
This administration has also implemented many polarizing domestic policies — with health care, immigration, and the environment prominent among them. These have been overlaid on a consistently weak economy. The likelihood for major policy fights is also great.
Finally abroad, challenges abound and multiply. The Middle East alone holds numerous conflicts — including estrangement from our closest ally. Relations with Russia and China are notably poor too.
All these issues threaten significant volatility for next year’s election and appear as persistent as they are difficult. Still, none offers terrorism’s challenges and potential turmoil.
Unlike the other events shaping today’s politics, terrorism is deliberate — not an act of nature, like a natural disaster. It can happen extremely suddenly — unlike the current weak economy that has sapped the public over time.
It is also intended to shock viscerally. It therefore evokes strong emotions — differing from normal foreign conflicts that often take time to rouse the public.
Finally, it has a much greater potential to negatively affect the popular mood. People quickly react negatively to it and long stay concerned about it. And its potential is almost entirely negative; it is very unlikely that people will have a sudden experience that makes them feel safer.
A November 16 Washington Post-ABC News poll demonstrates terrorism’s impact. Taken just after the Paris attack — an attack occurring a continent away and not targeting Americans — terrorism still jumped to respondents’ second greatest concern, only behind the economy.
And all terrorism’s heightened negative attributes come to an already very unsettled American electorate.
This unsettled electorate could differ distinctly from ones we are used to seeing in American elections. The American electorate is often relatively disengaged from the political process. This estrangement manifests itself in the U.S.’s low voter participation rates — even in presidential elections.
Terrorism has the potential to create a surge of emotion and for that to translate into a surge at the polls. Even a few percentage points’ increase in voter participation could dramatically alter normal election patterns in unpredictable ways.
Just as terrorism is the most volatile of political variables, its potential impact threatens to be disproportionate. For many reasons, Democrats have more to fear politically from terrorism next year.
Historically, Democrats are generally seen as weaker on defense issues. Democrats currently hold the White House, which brings with it the ultimate responsibility for national security. Also, Obama is seen as especially weak and out of touch on the terrorism issue.
Further, Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ likely nominee, was a member of this administration and her portfolio was foreign policy. Terrorism could turn her administration assets into liabilities overnight.
As 2016 sets to unfold, Clinton finds herself in the position of the Democrats’ 1968 nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Like Humphrey, she cannot afford to alienate the president she served. Presumably with Obama supporters already largely behind her, Clinton polls below 50% against much less well known Republicans. Yet terrorism — unlike any other issue — could force Clinton to need dramatic and quick separation from the president on whom she is so politically dependent.
We can only pray another terrorist attack does not take place between now and next November. But even if it does not, terrorism is already an issue in next year’s election. America has suffered heinous attacks before, most notably on 9/11 and now most recently in San Bernardino, CA.
The issue then is already before us. The only question now is how much an influence it will have. Because of its uniqueness, its impact could be extremely great, as well as very dissimilar to the ones we have been following and which virtually guaranteed volatility.