With the caucuses and primaries now just around the corner, concern over national security remains at the forefront of the minds of likely voters in America.
The war in Iraq and terrorism around the world are most often cited as the top concerns, but serious worries about the state of the U.S. health care system and concern about the economy are emerging as the "new" national security issues.
That is to say, Americans are redefining what they think about security, expanding it to include how secure they feel about their household budgets, and how secure they feel about their health care coverage. The 2008 presidential election will be the first since Americans have completely adjusted to the post-9/11 world, and campaigns must understand this sea change in the minds of voters if they are to survive.
Of course, this all goes out the window if there is a new, serious terrorist attack on U.S. soil. But that hasn't happened in more than six years. In the current environment, Democrats hold the advantage.
That's not how it was last time around. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry found himself with 48% support nationwide, not bad for a White House challenger newly minted as his party's nominee. The problem was, he was unable to budge that number all year, and ended up narrowly losing the election. My polling showed his strategy was flawed from the beginning.
Three years ago, our polling showed that he was favored by likely voters on all of the top issues but one -- national security and the war on terror. Granted that was the top issue in the minds of voters, and our polling showed voters trusted President Bush much more to handle terrorism, but Kerry focused almost exclusively on that issue alone, instead of on those issues where he had a natural advantage.
He failed to win the trust of voters on terrorism, and his failure to capture a majority coalition of voters who cared about those other issues was his biggest mistake.
This time could be different. It could be said that the success in avoiding another U.S. terror attack -- for which Bush must get at least some credit -- may actually hurt the Republican nominee this time around.
It is for this reason that the political landscape is even more favorable to Democrats -- issue by issue -- this time around. Unafraid that they will be the victim of a terrorist attack, more likely voters say they are now concerned about traditional domestic issues, including the economy and healthcare. These are the new security issues.
It is telling that all of the leading Democrats have detailed health care plans, while the Republicans hardly talk about the issue -- with the exception of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is the only one with executive experience dealing with the issue.
Americans are realists. Most think they are more likely to face a serious health threat or a serious financial threat in their lives than they are to face a serious terrorist threat. My polling shows that 35% expect a recession in the next year. That's similar to how many expect we will be attacked again by terrorists, but how many people believe terrorism will directly impact their community? Not many.
In addressing these issues, Democrats will need to be careful about imposing federal programs and mandates onto the citizenry. Not only does the negative memory of the Clinton 1993 heath care reform debacle linger in the political atmosphere like smoke from a cheap cigar, we now live in a world of monumental government mismanagement. Topping the list are serious mistakes in executing the Iraq war, the botched Hurricane Katrina recovery, and the neglect of injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Injecting a large, new government healthcare program, for instance, into the political arena at a time when most think the government can't shoot straight invites ridicule and failure.
It is hard to overestimate the public appetite for competence in government. In a benchmark political poll by Zogby conducted this spring, we found that 82% said that, most of all, they wanted a president who was a competent manager of the government. It ranked higher than every other issue.
In paying more attention to a domestic agenda, Democrats may feel vulnerable about international issues, but the lack of terrorism in the U.S. actually offers an opportunity. Our international survey research shows our foreign policy has made the U.S. more vulnerable to our enemies, in large part because we lack allies. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Iran and Syria were both helping us catch members of al Qaeda. We had a network of friends that, with the war in Iraq, was lost. The next president will have to rebuild that network, so candidates may as well use it as a campaign issue as well.
It is a political fact of life in attention-deficit America today that issues don't make it onto the national radar until they are at or near crisis stage. Now that likely voters are settled into a comfortable post-9/11 mentality and are hungry to deal with new problems, candidates face the dual challenges of convincing voters of what is most important - and that they are just the person to competently manage it back into obscurity.
This column appears in the November, 2007 edition of Campaigns and Elections Magazine
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