Whether the threat is terrorism, immigration, infectious disease, or the economy, American political life is often frightening, and 2016 is no exception. Recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States have made terrorism salient to American voters.
In January 2016, 69 percent of respondents in the American National Election Studies pilot study said that they were worried (either moderately, very, or extremely) about terrorism in the near future. In a May 2016 Gallup poll, 87 percent of respondents said that terrorism and national security are very or extremely important to their vote for president.
During a presidential race, these events naturally raise the question: Does either candidate benefit from terrorism anxiety? Based on our book, Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World, we expect that worries about terrorism benefit Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, despite the traditional advantage the Republican Party has on national security issues.
While terrorism fears generally benefit the Republican Party, this advantage does not necessarily extend to Trump because he has less expertise on foreign policy than Clinton, and anxious citizens want expertise, not just threatening rhetoric.
When politics is threatening and citizens are frightened, particularly by events that are dramatic and deadly, people want protection and look to leaders and institutions that can keep their physical selves, their families, and their nation safe and whole. For representative government to function properly, citizens must put at least minimal trust in the actors who govern on their behalf. One method by which people cope with the uncertainty and negative affect that underlie political anxiety is to trust expert political actors to protect them from threats.
How do citizens know who the trustworthy experts are? In some policy areas, relevant expertise is easily identified. For instance, in experiments we've done related to public health, people worried about infectious diseases (like H1N1 or swine flu and smallpox) become more trusting of medical experts (e.g., doctors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to provide them information, but they do not become more trusting of political actors with no medical background.
In a study on smallpox anxiety, we varied the description of the US surgeon general, as either a doctor with expertise in infectious disease or as a political appointee. Anxious respondents were more trusting in the surgeon general when she was described as an expert, but not when she was described as a political appointee. Anxious citizens want to put their trust in actors and institutions they believe will help them cope with the threats that are making them anxious in the first place.
In policy areas where expertise is less clear-cut, we find that anxiety tends to benefit the party that "owns" the policy. Political parties maintain "issue owning" advantages on select policy areas where the party is seen as more competent, more consistent, and more active based on the party's priorities and constituency.
On owned issues, parties appear more sincere and committed to delivering policy and generally focus rhetoric on owned issues. We find anxious respondents consider the owning party to be most knowledgeable about the policy and have the most capacity to give useful information, and trust the owning party more than the less expert/non-owning party.
Much of the time when the threat is terrorism, this threat is a boon for the Republican because the GOP has a longstanding ownership advantage on national security. That is, voters tend to say that they trust the Republicans to "handle" national security more than the Democrats. In the post-9/11 era, concerns over terrorism increased trust in Republican President George W. Bush and support for more hawkish foreign policy aligned with the Republican Party, and decreased support for Democratic President Barack Obama.
The same dynamics play out in other countries. In Israel, terrorism and rocket attacks increase votes for right-wing parties, which are also advantaged on security issues. Yet recent Washington Post/ABC polling shows that 50 percent of respondents say they trust Hillary Clinton to handle terrorism, compared with 39 percent who say they trust Donald Trump more.
Clinton's advantage over Trump on the issue of terrorism grew from the month before, where she only had a 3 percentage point advantage over Trump (47 percent versus 44), despite the fact that more people say the Republican Party can do a better job dealing with terrorism at home.
Why does the Republican Party advantage not transfer to Trump? Our work suggests that anxious citizens put their trust in leaders and policies they believe can protect them and help them cope with threats and use issue ownership as a proxy for expertise. In the 2016 election, it is Clinton who is advantaged on foreign policy expertise, having served as secretary of state and on the Armed Services Committee during her time in the Senate.
Trump has no formal foreign policy experience, and many Republican foreign policy experts have indicated their opposition to him or outright endorsement of Hillary Clinton. The types of "protective" policies that Trump offered in the wake of the Paris attacks, including a ban on Muslim immigration, the use of waterboarding on suspected terrorists, and killing their families, are more popular among Republican primary voters than among general election voters.
While terrorism fears do decrease support for civil liberties, particularly the liberties of Muslims, there is little public support for outright torture, making these positions outside of the mainstream for the general public. In a Memorial Day speech, Clinton depicted these ideas as inherently dangerous and Trump as temperamentally unfit for the office.
These are similar themes to the infamous Daisy ad Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson ran to portray his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater as an extremist, and we will likely see more of these claims in light of Trump's GOP convention speech, which was generally regarded as dark and dystopian.
Our work also points to another reason Trump may not be reaping benefits from terrorism anxiety — his rhetoric that focuses more on threats and less on solutions. Anxiety makes people want to reduce uncertainty and find experts who can lower their level of discomfort, and we expect that citizens will seek out political actors with policy solutions rather than actors who simply refer to terrorism as problematic.
To test this proposition, we used an experiment where we created anxiety about immigration in half our respondents using a campaign ad and then asked everyone to rate how much they trusted six political actors to handle immigration based on a short statement from the actor. For each actor, we varied whether the actor makes a statement just outlining a threat or a statement that offers a policy solution. All policy and threatening messages matched the ideology and real positions of the actual actors.
As with terrorism, immigration anxiety increases support for "tough" immigration policies that restrict immigration, and that is what we find in this experiment. Anxiety over immigration significantly increased trust in the Republican Party, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed tough immigration policy into law, and the militia group the Minutemen.
The policy message offered by the elite mattered as well; in four of our six models, actors paired with a threatening message were significantly less trusted than the same actors offering a policy solution, suggesting that citizens want a resolution to a policy problem rather than just threatening rhetoric.
Our threats versus solutions study also suggests that anxiety in 2016 benefits Clinton. While Trump's rhetoric focuses on impending threats, Clinton is much more likely to couple discussions of threats with policy approaches, which is not surprising given her extensive political background.
While we think this implication holds, it's worth noting that in our studies we cleanly control whether people see politicians offering solutions or not, but the real world is fuzzier. It seems obvious to us that the Clinton campaign is chock full of policy commitments while the Trump campaign is often vague on policy specifics, but that's not necessarily how the American public sees the candidates.
Trump also has a tendency to assert that he has a plan without offering details, which raises an interesting empirical question: Does anxiety only benefit candidates who offer protective policies, or can it benefit candidates who say they have protective policies without offering details? Our studies have not included such a condition.
Anxious citizens want protective policies, but they also want leaders who can implement them and who focus on effective, feasible solutions. So far, in 2016, this appears to benefit Hillary Clinton. Trump could have changed these dynamics by becoming more closely associated with establishment Republican figures, particularly in the foreign policy domain.
But in light of his repeated remarks dismissing the importance of standing by America's allies in NATO and Asia, this avenue seems increasingly foreclosed, as more of them reject him and/or endorse Clinton. It remains to be seen if voters penalize Trump for that lack of support and for him being hazy on the details.
This post will also appear in the Forum section of Political Communication, a Taylor & Francis journal, in fall 2016.