A series of recent polls reveals what Democrats have known implicitly since the 2002 elections — not being tough on terrorism is becoming a disqualifier in presidential politics.
One recent poll asked whether voters would vote for a candidate whom they otherwise preferred, if they thought he wasn’t tough enough on terrorism. The survey found that 47 percent said they would disqualify the candidate, against 42 percent who said they still could vote for him.
“This is the first election in the terrorist age. National security isn’t abstract,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist who conducted the poll of 600 voters earlier this month for Andres McKenna Polling and Research.
“Democrats have to, have to, have to find a way to be competitive on this,” he said.
Mr. McKenna said there was no “gender gap” on the issue, even though the sexes differed markedly on other issues, showing that people see this issue as directly affecting their lives at home.
“What it tells me is this is more than a national-security issue. This is a neighborhood-security issue. It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of that,” he said.
Some observers have likened terrorism to communism during the Cold War, when they say presidential candidates who could not prove they would confront communism vigorously could not get elected.
But Jeremy D. Rosner, senior vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and a former adviser to the Clinton administration on NATO expansion, said the terror issue might not play out as communism did during the Cold War.
“We’re not chasing an existential threat, as we were during the Cold War, staring at 20,000 hostile nuclear weapons,” he said.
He also said that while the issue will be more prominent in this election than the three since the end of the Cold War, it’s not clear it will carry beyond 2004.
“National security is going to be more salient in this presidential election than in the past several, but I think it would be a mistake to necessarily extrapolate that in a guaranteed way. It’s going to be highly dependent on events,” he said.
In the 2002 congressional elections, President Bush used his plan for the Department of Homeland Security as a campaign issue against several Senate Democrats.
Democratic leaders, including some of the nine running for their party’s presidential nomination, have criticized the Bush administration for failing to fund the nation’s homeland-security needs.
Still, when asked who’s winning the issue of homeland security, polls show Mr. Bush has a gigantic lead.