Trump and Clinton.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – After enduring unprecedented devastation and carnage on September 11, 2001, the American people experienced a genuine moment of unity over national values that had come under attack, and over the proper response to those behind it.
Sunday’s massacre in Orlando – on a far different scale than 9/11, but the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since that day – has provided the country no such unifying moment, because the motives and the circumstances of the attack are layered, touching on a host of decades-old American culture wars.
The complex causes behind the shooting means the attack is unlikely to strongly sway November’s US presidential election in one direction or another: both party bases have since constructed reductive narratives of what happened, which reinforce long-held political views of the world.
The conservative base of the Republican Party likely to turn out for Donald Trump, their presumptive nominee, has focused on the attack as an example of metastasizing Islamic extremism both at home and abroad.
The Orlando massacre, to these voters, represents a dangerous failure of the Obama administration to mitigate this threat as it has slowly grown over the last eight years.
Liberal voters in the Democratic Party, on the other hand, are outraged at the perception that Republican leadership has characterized Orlando as an indiscriminate terrorist attack, focusing exclusively on the Muslim identity of the perpetrator without acknowledging the gay identity of his victims. They scoff at “thoughts and prayers” from elected leadership, and instead seek policy reform – or at least an attempt at reform – on access to firearms.
Voters on both sides may be motivated to participate more actively in the campaign, but those passionate enough to vote based on the event in Orlando were likely voters anyway. And any visceral voter response to Orlando is likely to dissipate in the four and a half months between now and Election Day, during which several other potential news events may reshuffle their priorities.
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Modern US electioneering is not about persuading swing voters, who as it is rarely rank national security, gun control or gay rights among their top issues. Instead, it is about turning out those voters who are predisposed to support your campaign in the first place.
And those voters are viewing the tragedy in Orlando through completely different lenses.
A conventional terrorist attack– involving a foreign-born agent or a citizen linked to a foreign-based terrorist organization, utilizing mass casualty weapons not widely accessible on the US marketplace– would likely focus the national conversation on homeland security and have a direct impact on the November election. But Orlando does not represent such an attack. The complex nature of what happened makes it easier for both campaigns to suitably politicize the event in the months to come.
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