American concern about terrorism has increased about fivefold in the past month, according to a Gallup poll released on Monday morning. Terrorism, Gallup found, is the problem Americans are most likely to rank as "most important" — surpassing even the economy:
According to Gallup, this is the most concerned that Americans have been about terrorism in a full decade of conducting the poll. Moreover, the share of Americans ranking the economy as the most important problem has fallen to the lowest level since 2008's Great Recession.
The past month has seen two large terrorist attacks in Western countries, in Paris and San Bernardino, California. At the same time, the US economy has improved quite a bit in the past two years.
The poll found a real partisan gap. Twenty-four percent of Republicans see terrorism as the country's biggest issue today; the figure is 9 percent for Democrats. By contrast, at the beginning of November, just 4 percent of Republicans and 3 percent of Democrats saw terrorism as America's biggest problem. So while concerns about terrorism have spiked in both parties, the trend is much more pronounced among Republicans.
Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told me last week that the risk to Americans from future ISIS attacks on the homeland is very low. The group has a very hard time getting trained operatives to the States and has relatively few homegrown sympathizers here.
ISIS's strategy, instead, depends on convincing Americans that it poses a major threat, instilling a sense of panic and terror that leads US policymakers to respond in ways that serve ISIS's interests. Discriminating against Muslim refugees in a way that helps ISIS paint the US as an enemy of Islam is one example.
"Terror is a sensation that depends on you believing there is more to it than there is — that there is a whole movement behind these people in San Bernardino," Neumann explained. "And the reality is, of course, there isn't."
Still, Americans are understandably concerned after Paris and San Bernardino. This poll suggests we will be hearing more about these issues as the presidential campaign continues.