Voters harbor deep doubts about the ability of Barack Obama and the Democrats to keep the U.S. safe from terrorism and handle other national security crises, according to a new Democratic study.
As the general election gets fully under way and most polls show the presidential race remains close, an analysis by a Democratic pollster and party advocacy group released late last week found the party's "national security credibility gap is returning."
"Old doubts about Democrats on security, after diminishing during 2006-2007, have begun to re-emerge," said a memorandum based on findings by Democratic pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg for Third Way, an centrist-leaning Democratic issue advocacy organization.
"Some of this re-emerging gap on national security is about the Democratic standard-bearer, Sen. Barack Obama. Voters know Sen. John McCain is a military man, but are still learning about how Obama's background has prepared him to be Commander-in-Chief," the memo said.
But the memo also added that "Democrats down the ballot would be seriously mistaken to believe" that he was solely to blame. The national security gap extended to the party at large, the memo said.
The study, based on polls and focus groups in key battleground states, found "concerns that Democrats follow the polls rather than principle; that Democrats are indecisive and are afraid to use force; and that Democrats don't support the military."
"Republicans continue to win on many security issues," the memo said.
"Indeed, in a year that could not be more favorable to Democrats, the public still decisively favors Republicans to keep the country safe," warns the Greenberg/Third Way analysis.
A sizable "trust gap" emerges when voters are asked which party would better protect the country, the memo says. On which party will better handle national security issues, Republicans lead by 14 points, 49 percent to 35 percent. On who would better "combat terrorism," Republicans lead by 15 points, 48 percent to 33 percent, the study notes.
A majority of voters still view the Iraq war as a mistake, and "partly as a result, President Bush is strikingly unpopular. Yet perhaps the most sobering finding is that these doubts about Bush and the Republicans have not fully altered the landscape on national security that has persisted for over three decades," the analysis said.
"Democrats have failed to translate voter unease about Bush into a lasting indictment of Republican leadership on national security or to rebuild their own reputation on security in this post-Cold War era," it said.
The memo's findings were also drawn from lengthy interviews with six focus groups conducted with independents and moderate-to-conservative Democrats in Denver, Virginia Beach and Columbus, Ohio.
"Our research finds three striking and prominent drivers behind the current security credibility gap - each a perception about Democrats that leads to public doubt," the memo said. Among these doubts:
• "Voters see Democrats as indecisive in the face of threats and afraid to use force to protect the nation;
• "They see Democrats as insufficiently supportive of the military; and
• "They see Democrats following public opinion, rather than adhering to a consistent, principled view of the country's best interests."
In an interview with The Washington Times, Brookings Institution's national security analyst Michael O'Hanlon maintained that "on one level the Democrats don't have to win a gold medal" on each of these issues.
"They do need to be seen as competent and credible, and even more important, what the country needs is less partisanship on national security, period."