The rise of ISIS, a controversial nuclear-arms deal with Iran, and a grim list of recent terrorist attacks from Paris to San Bernardino had until recently put the Democratic Party on the defensive over national security, as voters questioned whether President Barack Obama could keep the country safe.
But Democrats think they’re ready to flip the script in 2016 — thanks to Donald Trump.
The presumptive GOP nominee’s polarizing rhetoric and thin resume offer a favorable contrast with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they say. And that could remake the national security debate.
There could be consequences not only for the presidential race but House and Senate contests as well, where Republican candidates are counting on national security as a key argument in their campaigns.
The Democrats’ newfound conviction was crystallized in the wake of the terrorist attack in Orlando, when Trump’s self-congratulatory and pugnacious response led top Democratic strategists to openly declare that he had become a liability for the GOP.
“There is a strength [Clinton] presents on this topic that I think is important for Democrats,” said Kelly Ward, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Contrast that … with Donald Trump, not only his lack of experience, but his rhetoric and his demonstration of how he would deal with national security tragedies.”
The Democratic strategist said a debate over national security isn’t one that has favored her party in the recent past — which she thinks is about to change.
“I think we should really question that premise this cycle,” said Ward, speaking at a breakfast Monday hosted by the Christian Science Monitor .
There’s reason to doubt her bullish assessment. Polls show that on some questions of national security, Trump thus far has earned greater trust from voters than Clinton.
And for all the boisterousness of Trump’s response, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history could stoke a desire to put a Republican commander in chief in charge.
It could also send voters flocking to the candidate perceived to have the strongest approach to combating terrorism.
“They believe they can make the case effectively to a majority of voters that Trump’s temperament is dangerous,” said Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster. “The problem with that is folks right now, especially big chunks of swing voters, are looking for strength more than anything else.”
He added that Trump’s biggest draw for voters is his perceived strength, citing reams of data the pollster has collected about the putative GOP nominee since the primary.
Polling conducted before the Orlando shootings indicated voters were mixed on which candidate they believed would best protect the country.
Fifty-three percent of voters said they think Clinton would respond better to an international crisis than Trump, according to a mid-May survey from Quinnipiac University , compared to 40 percent who picked Trump.
But the public flipped when asked whether Trump or Clinton would better handle ISIS. Forty-nine percent said Trump; 41 percent of them picked Clinton.
To Democrats, however, Trump's series of Tweets, speeches, and interviews after the Orlando attack — including one in which Trump appeared to implicitly connect Obama — sharply contrasted with the response from the nation’s onetime top diplomat. The New Yorker reiterated his call to ban all Muslim immigration in remarks noted for their apocalyptic tone.
“If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not going to have our country anymore,” Trump said, speaking from New Hampshire. “There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left.”
He was also unsparing in his criticism of Clinton, saying that her reluctance to use the term “radical Islam” only “broadcasts weakness” to America’s enemies.
“The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk, think, and act clearly,” Trump said.
Clinton, meanwhile, offered a more measured response. In a speech in Ohio that included calls for greater gun control and intelligence operations, she also emphasized the need for unity in the face of the terrorism threat.
“I have no doubt we can meet this challenge if we meet it together,” she said.
In an interview, Ward said the contrast between Clinton’s and Trump’s responses reminded her of 2008, when then GOP presidential nominee John McCain suspended his campaign over the financial crisis while then-Sen. Obama declared that presidential hopefuls need to be capable of handling two tasks at once.
McCain’s temporary suspension made him look erratic, Ward said, and Obama surged in the polls as a result. If Trump also is seen in the same light, that could be enough to overturn the GOP’s traditional edge in national security.
“The conventional wisdom of how this plays out on partisan lines will be different this cycle than it has in the past,” Ward said. The public has given Republicans higher marks since concerns about the Iraq War faded and were replaced by deep worry over terrorism. The shift was enough to give the GOP a late boost in the 2014 midterm campaign, when the beheadings of two American citizens by ISIS profoundly affected the political debate that year.
A Gallup poll from fall of 2015 found that 52 percent of the public thought Republicans did a better job protecting it from terrorism.
The Republican pollster Anderson said that for Clinton and Democrats to be successful, they need to convince voters that Trump is more unstable than strong. And it’s possible, he said, that Trump’s response to the Orlando shootings helped them do so.
“There’s concern anytime he opens his mouth about anything,” Anderson said. “I don’t know a Republican I’ve talked to who’s not cringing, saying, ‘Does this help? Does it hurt? Did he just blow himself up?’”
But Anderson added that Clinton's use of the phrase "Islamic terrorism" on Monday was, to his mind, a sign that her campaign was worried about Trump's critique.
Even if it defies conventional wisdom, Trump's approach might yet prove right again.
“Is there concern? Yeah," Anderson said. "But so far we’ve been wrong about him every single time.”