By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
updated 3/18/2004 6:29:39 PM ET 2004-03-18T23:29:39

Homeland security as a campaign issue is as perplexing for politicians as it is to a public trying daily to absorb the frustrations of a threat-conscious society in the post-9/11 world. 

Homeland security will play a part in the minds of voters come November, pollsters and political observers say; however, the degree of impact the issue has on the election’s outcome largely depends on how the candidates choose to frame the issue, experts say.

Any discussion of homeland security quickly gets sucked into the broader issue of terrorism, which then naturally leads to issues of foreign affairs, and that’s when the issue gets dicey for politicians.

“When people hear ‘terrorism,’ they think ‘international conflict’ and ‘foreign affairs,’” said Paul Gronke, chairman of the Political Science Department at Reed College in Portland, Ore. “And for most of our 220-year history, foreign affairs have seldom energized the populace.”

Yet when recent events, such as the train bombing in Madrid, raise the specter of al-Qaida imposing itself on another nation, possibly as retaliation for support of the U.S. war in Iraq, political candidates in the United States are forced to address the issue without the luxury of being able to shape the circumstance.

That kind of forced visibility immediately impacts potential voters because it dredges up deep-seated concerns about terrorism.  “Recent events on the world scene heighten those concerns, meaning this is a fluid issue with the capability of towering over other issues,” said Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University.

Political strategists face conflicting issues when trying to decide how to frame the homeland security issue, says Victor Fingerhut, a Democratic pollster and political consultant.  “First, it is perceived in general as an anti-terrorism foreign policy issue, where the Republicans have an enormous advantage,” Fingerhut said. Further, “most people don’t think the Democrats could have a [successful foreign policy] relation with Iceland, no less the rest of the planet, there’s nothing new about that,” he said.

Given the natural advantage Republicans have on foreign policy issues, Democrats can attack the homeland security issue, as Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry did earlier this week, by raising serious questions about the amount and type of funding the administration has allocated for domestic security.

“When you get the question of funding firefighters and that sort of thing, people will believe the Democrats are better on that regard,” Fingerhut said.  Kerry picked up an endorsement earlier this week from the firefighters union and used the opportunity to outline his vision for homeland security and to upbraid the administration for cutting funding to firefighters in its proposed budget for fiscal year 2005.

“The Democrats jump up and down about inadequate funding for front-line firefighters and that type of thing,” Fingerhut said.  “The problem is that the Republicans will turn that into an anti-terrorism argument and neutralize it,” he said.  “And when you start talking about funding, it becomes an appropriations issue, putting enough money into firefighters and stuff like that, and that is a fairly remote issue for most people,” he said.

Such a move isn’t “a winning issue” for Kerry, Fingerhut said, mostly because as the nation gets deeper into the campaign, putting effort into the homeland security debate takes away from areas, such as jobs, healthcare and the economy, where Democrats have an edge. 

“It seems to me that homeland security is a waste of time for Kerry and, except when put in its broadest terms, it’s basically a waste of time for the Republicans,” Fingerhut said. “They ought to just focus on terrorism in a macro sense.”

A Gallup poll taken during the first week of March underscores Fingerhut’s observation.  When Americans were asked to choose between economic conditions or terrorism as being “most important to your vote,” 65 percent tapped the economy as the overriding factor, compared with just 26 percent who answered terrorism. Eight percent said the two were equally important,  and 1 percent said neither was most important. 

But like the issue of homeland security itself, the question of how the issue resonates with voters is far more complex than an either/or polling question.  Dive below the aggregate numbers of this Gallup poll and a surprising fact turns up.  Of those polled who identified themselves as Democrats, 76 percent chose the economy, 10 percent chose terrorism, the rest split.  That compares with 48 percent of those identifying themselves as Republicans who chose terrorism as their top concern; 46 percent chose terrorism, and the rest split.

Define and conquer
In the early crucial Democratic contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the issue of homeland security barely registered as a concern with voters.  A poll sponsored by the Democracy Corps, founded by party heavyweights Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Robert Shrum, showed that out of a dozen topics, homeland security registered as a major concern for a paltry 2 percent of voters across each of those contents. 

“For this issue to have an impact on voters there needs to be a widely recognized difference between the two major candidates in their stands on homeland security,” said Diana Mutz, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.   “At the moment, I don't see that this exists; that is, the candidates are not perceived to have different opinions on the importance of homeland security, nor specific disagreements about how to implement it.”

Oddly, homeland security this week became one of the first issues on which both parties decided to take off the gloves and attack.  The Madrid bombing spurred the issue, experts said, forcing the terrorism question.  And both parties fell to their strength: The Republicans pushed their record on being tough on terrorism, while Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, attacked the administration’s record for alleged inadequate funding of homeland security.

“There may soon be other terrorism-related differences in policies that [the candidates] advocate,” Mutz said, “but now we're talking finer points of detail than most folks have processed at this stage in the election,” she said.  “Moreover, it's questionable whether the finer points of anything ever make good political issues.”

The specter of al-Qaida carrying out some sort of terrorist attack in an effort to disrupt the November election can’t be ignored, given the events of Madrid. 

“Americans ‘rally round the flag’ in times of national crisis,” said Gronke.  “The party in power benefits.… This doubly rebounds to the benefit of the Republican Party because they are currently seen as stronger on defense and on dealing with the terrorist threat.”

However, Gronke says work he’s done looking at how people vote provides an “interesting twist.”  When America “is perceived to be the aggressor, a ‘divisive’ rally occurs,” Gronke said.  While overall approval of the incumbent party increases, different segments of the public move in different directions, as such “in-partisans increase their support; out-partisans decrease their support,” he said. 

“This is what has hurt, and continues to hurt, Bush in Iraq,” Gronke asserted.  “In Afghanistan, the U.S. was perceived as responding to an attack on the U.S. But Bush has been unable to convince the public that Iraq posed an immediate threat and thus, he is suffering from a ‘dissensual’ — in contrast to consensual — public response.”

Although the tendency would be to rally around any action the administration takes, “such effects could be short-lived,” Mutz said, noting that “the Bush administration could obviously also be blamed for inadequate homeland security as a result of such an attack.”

Such an attack could be a virtual powder keg under Bush’s presidential campaign.  “A terrorist attack inside the United States has the potential for producing a convergence of concerns about national and economic security, thereby undermining the leading reason for Bush's re-election,” said Clemson professor Ransom.

Between now and then
Voters will have a hard time de-linking homeland security from terrorism, said Steven Finkel, a polling expert and government and foreign affairs professor at the University of Virginia.  Instead they tend to think of these as a “bundle of issues closely linked to the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq,” he said. 

Finkel believes this “bundle” of issues will play a significant role in the November elections, but the way it eventually plays out “will depend on objective events that unfold between now and the general election, as well as how successful the candidates are in framing the issue to their advantage,” Finkel said.

For Republicans that means touting how Bush took the war to the terrorists and that today the United States is a safer place because of homeland security efforts, Finkel said.  For Democrats the “winning frame” is to underscore how much geopolitical capital Bush’s “aggressive and unilateral foreign policy” has wasted, leaving “our alliances in tatters,” Finkel said. 

Both “frames” have public support, Finkel noted, with the edge at the moment in the Republicans’ favor.  “But if more attacks occur and more chaos ensues in Iraq, the public is likely to be more open to the Kerry frame,” he said. 

And whatever happened to the notion of the “soccer mom,” so highly touted in the 1996 elections, morphing into the “national security mom” and putting her collective thumbprint on the election season?

First you’d have to prove that the “soccer mom” existed in the first place, said Mutz. “In 1996 when that term became popular, it was used to mean very different things by different organizations, so it is difficult to argue that some particular demographic subsegment — however you want to define them — was controlling the outcome of that race,” Mutz said. 

“And how do you define a ‘soccer mom,’ anyway? Offhand, I'm not aware of any data supporting the soccer mom interpretation, other than anecdotes,” Mutz said. “So why should the ‘national security mom’ be any different?  Theories with catchy labels tend to attract disproportionate attention — in academe as well as in journalism!”

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