Terrorism (or its absence) will decide the US election

The reluctance of the government to take all possible measures to prevent terrorism may pave the way for radical elements in the opposition to take power.

Markers litter the sidewalk as FBI investigators look over a crime scene. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Markers litter the sidewalk as FBI investigators look over a crime scene.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Terrorism is a method of warfare designed to achieve political goals by spreading fear and anxiety. Terrorist attacks do not win wars, nor do they topple regimes, but citizens’ fear for their safety and for the safety of loved ones motivates them to look for definitive solutions that assuage their fear of attacks. The occurrence of several terrorist attacks in a country within a short period, or even of one particularly deadly attack, is likely to affect the behavioral patterns of an entire society, as well as the actions of governments and leaders.
Following mass casualty terrorist attacks, decision makers sometimes expedite draconian legislation, providing security forces with prerogatives previously denied them, (for example the USA Patriot Act that was enacted six weeks after September 11, 2001), allocating large budgetary resources for the acquisition of counter-terrorism technology and for increased security activity, and taking retaliatory measures against the perpetrators and their supporters.
By taking steps such as these, decision makers are following the “will of the people,” or at least according to what they think the public expects of them in a time of emergency.
It is in this post-terrorist-attack time frame that the “democratic dilemma” in counter-terrorism is at its peak – that is the clash between the need to effectively fight terrorism and the need to protect the country’s liberal-democratic values.
The paradox lies in the fact that it is democracies that are most liable to overreact. These societies are based on a social contract in which the government, elected by the people, is committed to the well-being of its constituents and, first and foremost, is duty bound to ensure the safety and security of citizens.
The citizens aspire to stability and security, which are challenged by terrorism. During times of crisis due to terrorist attacks, the public is in no way prepared to listen to excuses regarding why order and security cannot be restored, what damage may ensue from a hasty counter-reaction, or what harm may be caused to the values of society and the state.
The social contract, fitting during times of peace and calm, faces a tough test during a wave of attacks.
The reluctance of the government to take all possible measures to prevent terrorism may pave the way for radical elements in the opposition to take power by promising that they have the solution for restoring order, security and stability, and the determination to do so without reservation or hesitation. Whether this be a false representation of some kind of magic solution, or a coherent plan of action, the public would prefer to rely on these promises than on a leadership perceived as hesitant and weak.
In this way, terrorist attacks may have a significant impact on elections.
Such an effect may be the result of a sequence of relatively small-scale attacks, or of a single major attack close to the date of the vote. These attacks are likely to cause voters to change their prioritization of the issues, to give precedence to security over the economy and other matters.
In various countries, terrorist groups and specific terrorist attacks have had far-reaching effects on voting behavior during elections.
For example, in Israel a few months before the 1996 election, public support for right-wing parties hit an unprecedented low, due to the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in October 1995. However, this trend changed, indeed completely reversed, after the resumption of suicide bombings in February and March 1996. The terrorist attacks brought about a political upheaval and the election of rightwing candidate Benjamin Netanyahu instead of the Left’s candidate, Shimon Peres. A similar process took place in the 2001 elections, when Ariel Sharon beat Ehud Barak by a wide margin of approximately 25 percent, in light of the outbreak of a wave of violence and terrorism after the collapse of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
In the Spanish parliamentary elections held on March 14, 2004, three days after the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history, changes in the government took place that would never have been predicted before the violence.
It would seem that terrorist attacks have driven people who were not planning to vote to participate in elections and to vote for the opposition.
Others changed their political preference in the wake of the attacks. The case of Spain illustrates the fact that the impact of attacks on voting patterns does not necessarily favor the candidate with the toughest-on-terror image, but rather reflects the voters’ disappointment with the incumbent government’s handling of the phenomenon and its preference for a different doctrine in dealing with terrorism. This happens because, on the face of it, the attacks prove that the current regime’s methods are not fulfilling voters’ expectations. Studies by Martin Gassebner, Richard Jong-A-Pin and Jochen Mierau found that “terror has a robust positive effect on the probability that the incumbent government is replaced. The magnitude of the effect increases with the severity of the terrorist attack.”
The current US election is playing out during a period of escalating global terrorism and fundamental changes in the way attacks are carried out, which increases the sense of danger and vulnerability among many in the Western world, including in the United States. The growing phenomenon of “lone wolf” attacks and independent networks that do not necessarily belong to, or receive guidance or operational assistance from, a terrorist organization, has brought the threat of terrorism to the average citizen’s doorstep, be it in San Bernadino, Orlando, Nice, Paris, Brussels or New York. The combination of the lethality of the attacks, the cruelty with which they are carried out, and their random nature enhance the sense of anxiety. Moreover, the well-oiled propaganda machines of ISIS and al-Qaida that disproportionately amplify the threat of terrorism can increase its impact on voting patterns at such a sensitive time. Thus, any lone terrorist, inspired by ISIS, may have a strategic influence on voting patterns in the United States.
WHAT WOULD this influence mean in such a scenario in the United States? In their studies on the impact of terrorism on voting patterns, Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister found that the threat of terrorism increases support for particular types of politicians perceived as having certain leadership qualities.
Moreover, they argue that this gives an advantage to men, Republicans with hawkish positions on foreign affairs and homeland security, and those with relevant experience in national security.
Recent public opinion surveys conducted in the US show that despite Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump in the polls by a significant margin, when it comes to dealing with terrorism and ISIS, the American public tends to believe that Trump’s capabilities surpass Clinton’s. In a July CNN poll that compared the capabilities of the two candidates in dealing with ISIS, 53% of respondents assessed that Trump was more capable than Clinton, while 40% felt the opposite.
The results of similar surveys carried out in the months prior indicate that this trend is only becoming stronger over time and that the gap in the perceived abilities of Clinton in dealing with ISIS compared to those of Trump is only getting bigger. (A June Quinnipiac University poll found that 52% of respondents believed Trump would be more effective in confronting ISIS than Clinton, and 39% thought the opposite. A month earlier, in response to the same question, only 49% said that Trump would be more effective, with 41% responding that it would be Clinton, and in December 2015, the responses to a Suffolk University poll were divided equally between the two candidates in regards to their ability to deal with ISIS, with each candidate receiving 44%.) It is true that the current race for the US presidency is not between an opposition candidate and a sitting leader. On the surface at least, they are both new candidates
. But Clinton, as President Obama’s former secretary of state and a member of the Democratic Party, is perceived by the public as a natural extension of the current administration while Trump, who in his speeches regularly criticizes Obama’s (and Clinton’s) policies on homeland security and terrorism, is perceived by the American public as a militant alternative. In the event of terrorist attacks in the US on the eve of the election, the American public is likely, as other nations have in the past, to prefer the alternative that would provide it with a sense of security, even if it is only a false one without a clear doctrine or proven strategy.
Prof. Boaz Ganor is the Founder & Executive Director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel. He chairs the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism: ICT’s 16th International Conference