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Americans Won't Think of Paris at the Polls

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Don’t believe anyone who tells you how the attacks in Paris will affect the general election for president in November 2016.

Depending on what happens or doesn’t happen, we can’t even say for certain if terrorism and the war against Islamic State will be leading issues by next fall. Memories (and media attention) are short.

Let’s suppose there are more attacks. Or thwarted plots. Or a military intervention that is considered a failure or a success. 

We still don’t know how voters will react. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, George W. Bush’s approval ratings soared. Yet Barack Obama received only a minor, short-lived bump after the death of Osama bin Laden. Neither reaction was easily predictable.

What we do know is that most times foreign policy and national security have only minor effects on general elections. The big exception is when incumbent parties pay a price for unpopular and costly wars. At least, that’s what we’ve learned from experiences that are roughly similar -- for example, the effects of U.S. troop deaths on presidential elections during the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.  Of course, something unprecedented could happen over the coming months. Then, perhaps, voters’ reactions will be different.

What is unlikely, however, is that the national security records of the Republican and Democratic nominees will make much difference in how their parties fare in the general election. Democrats may be confident that Hillary Clinton’s edge in foreign-policy experience will boost her chances if terrorism is a big concern in fall 2016. Republicans may be certain that her connection to the Obama administration will make her vulnerable. Neither of these factors is likely to affect how people vote.

If the Barack Obama administration is perceived as successful overall, it will boost any Democrat. If not, it will drag any Democrat down. It won’t matter that Clinton was once a part of the administration; the same thing would apply to any Democratic nominee. And on the Republican side, whoever wins the nomination will appear to be sufficiently well-informed and prepared once the general-election debates are over. Few swing voters will disqualify him or her based on inexperience; winning the nomination makes a politician seem presidential.

General-election voting these days is overwhelmingly about party, and people with strong party loyalty will tend to perceive events as vindicating what they already believe. Swing voters are mostly low-information voters. They’ll be aware of the Paris attacks, but it’s impossible to guess what, if anything, they’ll make of smaller defeats and victories.

If you’re looking for hints of what might happen next November, the main indicator we have at the moment is Obama’s approval ratings, along with measures of how the economy is doing. Trying to guess the election outcome based on trial match-ups of candidates now is a waste of time.

Until the conventions next summer, many voters won’t be thrilled with their party’s prospective nominee. But eventually, almost all partisans will be enthusiastic, at least for a brief stretch next fall, about whomever their party has picked.

  1. Even then, one can always argue about what is truly similar and what is not, or what constitutes a "successful" war and what doesn't. But we can see links between the death counts of U.S. troops and the sinking approval ratings of Bush, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman during the Iraq, Vietnam and Korean wars, respectively.

  2. Just as 2008 Republican candidate John McCain was stuck with blame for George W. Bush's record in the White House. Fully breaking with his own party's president during the recession would only have sparked intraparty dissension -- and further convinced swing voters that the economy was really awful with a Republican in the White House.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net