WASHINGTON — The latest terrorist attack in France, coming on the eve of the Republican National Convention, offers Donald Trump a chance to further appeal to voters who believe he is tougher on terror than Democrat Hillary Clinton, political analysts and some GOP supporters say.
“People at the moment see Trump as stronger on terrorism. The more they care about that, the better it is for him,” said George Edwards, a political science professor and founder of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. “This in some ways is a stage-setter for Trump, giving him an opportunity to respond very strongly in his speech next week.”
Trump’s nominating convention in Cleveland next week will emphasize national security — along with immigration, trade, and jobs — as a key theme. Clinton’s convention in Philadelphia a week later is expected to focus on unity; she has not signaled that national security will be a major theme for the Democratic National Convention.
With terrorism at the forefront of voters’ concerns — and a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign — the massacre that killed at least 84 people as they celebrated Bastille Day on a waterfront promenade in Nice plays into Trump’s tough rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants. The coup in Turkey Friday would only seem to add to anxieties over an uncertain world.
The pattern has grown achingly familiar following attacks over the past year in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and Orlando. Bloody images flash on TV, followed by grief and insecurity shared by many people, and reactions from the presidential candidates.
After the latest attack, Trump, in interviews with Fox News, said he would ask Congress for a declaration of war against the Islamic State. He repeated his call for a ban on refugees and immigrants from “terrorist areas.”
Former secretary of state Clinton indicated in media interviews following the attack that she wanted to resist committing troops to Syria, the Islamic State’s base of operations, and called for an “intelligence surge” and an increased focus on radicalism online.
The reactions reflected the candidates’ divergent styles: Clinton, a cautious, conventional politician, and Trump, offering a rebuke to the measured tones traditionally deployed by those aspiring to be president.
To some, Trump’s responses after the recent mass shootings and terror attacks indicate he doesn’t have the temperament to be commander in chief. But, in days of heightened anxiety, some Republicans argue that Clinton’s steadiness may not be enough in the eyes of voters.
“Steady how?” said former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, a Republican Trump supporter. “Steady as a continuation of this president’s policies? They don’t want that. They kind of like that Donald Trump is a little unpredictable in that area, because it keeps our enemies off guard. You don’t know what he’s going to do. You don’t know what he’s thinking.”
In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks and the December shootings in San Bernardino, some political analysts had predicted that voters would reject Trump’s off-the-cuff style and opt for a more somber, calming candidate.
But Trump’s bombast led to just the opposite. Voters flocked to Trump’s vows to ban Muslim immigrants to the United States, to build a wall on the Mexican border, and to destroy the Islamic State.
A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed voters in three key swing states viewed Trump as more effective than Clinton when it comes to fighting the Islamic State. In Florida, 57 percent of voters, regardless of how they intend to vote, favored Trump on the issue, compared to 35 percent for Clinton. A roughly 10-point margin was also reflected in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who chaired the Republican National Committee in the 1990s, said public dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of terrorism would work to Trump’s benefit.
“Americans have never seen terrorism on the level that the radical Islamic terrorists have practiced,” Barbour said in an interview Friday. “Normally, the economy and jobs, incomes, would be the biggest issue by far, but this terrorism is being repeated so often that it rises very high in people’s minds.”
But to win the general election, it will not be enough for Trump to simply project strength, some Republican analysts say; he needs to also provide substantive policies.
“These national security issues, if handled correctly by Trump, will certainly play to his advantage,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist. “Trump already projects strength and toughness. At this point people want him to project seriousness and inspire confidence in his ability to lead during difficult times.”
Clinton, on the other hand, may have the foreign policy experience Trump lacks, but Williams said that could also be a liability because many Americans do not trust her judgment after the Benghazi attacks.
The new Quinnipiac poll showed that swing-state voters see Trump as far more trustworthy than Clinton and think he would be a stronger leader, but they said Clinton would do a better job responding to an international crisis and is better prepared overall to be president.
William Galston, a former policy advisor to President Clinton and now a senior fellow at Brookings, said Trump’s decision to make terrorism a major theme in his campaign does not mean he has always reacted to the issue in a “politically accepted manner.”
Galston pointed to Trump’s self-congratulatory tweets following the Orlando nightclub attack by a lone gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
“It’s also a matter of demonstrating that you understand the kind of temperament that the American people are looking for, and Mr. Trump did not meet that test after Orlando,” Galston said. Clinton, he said, “will not cede this territory to Donald Trump and the Republican party. No way.”
David Wade, a former longtime aide to Secretary of State John Kerry, said moments like the Nice attacks tend to have a “focusing effect” for voters.
“The experience argument tilts towards Clinton and she carries the day on demeanor, but all eyes will be on how Trump responds now and in Cleveland,” Wade said. “If enough Americans decide this is about open borders and Islamophobia, then the ugly strain of populism that Trump taps into may find some xenophobic traction. Islamophobia would be the vermouth that mixes one toxic cocktail alongside the bathtub gin of Trump’s immigration bombast.”
But he said he does not believe that angry coalition could translate into a winning one.