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There is little evidence that terrorist attacks help Donald Trump

- September 21, 2016
Members of an FBI evidence response team collect evidence from the scene of bomb explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City on Sept. 19, 2016. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

This past weekend’s bombings in New York and New Jersey and the stabbing of nine people in a Minnesota mall — now being referred to as terrorist attacks — have led some observers to suggest that these attacks could help Donald Trump. Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza wrote on Monday that “chaos, uncertainty and anxiety will work in Trump’s favor,” and Trump adviser Alex Castellanos said that “Trump is strength in an uncertain world.”

But is this really true? The 2015 attacks in Paris and San Bernardino didn’t really move polls about a then-hypothetical Trump-Clinton matchup.

Moreover, in a result reported here for the first time, the 2016 Chicago Council Survey found no difference in support for either of the current major-party presidential candidates just after the Orlando shootings in June.

This survey, fielded between June 10-27, provides an unusual real-time experiment. That is because the survey was already in the field when the Orlando attack — considered the nation’s worst terrorist attack since 9/11—took place on June 12. Altogether, 804 respondents completed the survey before the attack and 1,257 after the attack.

After the attack, there was little increase in the belief that international terrorism is a critical threat to U.S. security. This perception had increased substantially before the attack — from an all-time low of 63 percent in 2014 to 75 percent in this June survey.  There were only slight differences among those interviewed just before (73 percent) and after the Orlando shootings (77 percent).

However, there were increases in the percentage of Americans who felt less safe from terrorism and were concerned about being the target of both a terrorist attack and of gun violence.


Similarly, there were increases in the percentage who said that Islamic fundamentalism was a critical threat (from 52 percent before the attack to 64 percent after) and the percentage who supported sending troops to fight violent Islamic extremist groups (37 percent before vs. 45 percent after).

However, there were no differences in perceptions of immigrants as a threat, views of Middle Eastern or Mexican immigrants, or attitudes toward limiting the flow of migrants or refugees, as well as Syrian refugees in particular. There were also no differences in support for military action in Syria specifically, as well as beliefs about the effectiveness of various anti-terrorism tactics, like airstrikes, drone strikes and torture. In short, there is very mixed evidence that the public became more hawkish in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Given these mixed results, it’s not surprising that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton gained much after the Orlando attack. About half of voters surveyed said they would vote for Hillary Clinton both before (52 percent) and after (51 percent) the attack in Orlando. Four in 10 said they would vote for Donald Trump before and after the attack.

In fact, it’s hardly clear that we should even expect Trump to benefit. Political scientists Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister have shown that Republicans are generally advantaged on the issue of terrorism, but they also found that candidates with national security experience are also advantaged, which could help Clinton.

We now have had a tragic series of terrorist attacks during this presidential campaign. But despite an often-expressed view that these attacks help Trump in the general election, precious little evidence supports that view.

Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.