Terrorism is now America's most important issue

December 11, 2015, 3:38 PM GMT+0

Terrorism, not the economy or Social Security, is now seen as the top issue facing Americans

The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have made Americans much more sensitive – and even fearful – about additional terrorist attacks in the United States, and terrorism has been elevated to the status of the public’s most important issue. It has never before ranked first in the seven years of Economist/YouGov Polls.

Last week, terrorism was, with the economy, ranked as the public’s most important issue. This week, it is number one. Seniors, now receiving notifications that their net 2016 Social Security benefits will likely see a decrease (with Medicare Part B costs rising and no cost of living increase in basic Social Security benefits), have put Social Security at the top of their personal list of issues, giving it an overall ranking nearly as high as terrorism. One in three of those 65 and older say Social Security is their most important issue, 23% of seniors cite terrorism.

There continues to be a party difference in worries about terrorism. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to put terrorism at the top of their issue list. And they are also more likely to be worried about the possibility of an attack. But everyone is more worried than before. Concern rose after the Paris attacks, but is even higher today. In the latest poll, three in four Americans rate the risk of a terrorist attack in the U.S. in the next 12 months as at least somewhat likely. 44% put the risk at more than 50%.

Worries about a possible attack have nearly doubled among all groups since June. But Republicans continue to be the most concerned. While one in three Democrats think an attack in the next 12 months is very likely, six in ten Republicans believe an attack is very likely to come.

Many Americans, including a majority of Republicans, no longer think the country is safer now than it was in 2001. In fact, overall one in four think the country is much less safe. One in three Democrats believe the country is less safe, matching the percentage of Democrats who think the country is safer.

Opinions on this question are far more negative than they were in June.

Last June, just 6% said terrorism was their most important issue, and 42% approved of the way President Obama was handling the issue. Today the President’s approval rating on terrorism is just 34%, while 51% disapprove.

For about half the public, action against terrorism is worth the cost. In this week’s poll, 48% say that. 30% disagree. The public felt pretty much the same in June. But now there is a partisan division, with Republicans more willing than Democrats and independents to think action against terrorism is worth the cost.

Terrorism has become part of the 2016 presidential campaign, but at the moment no major candidate gets credit from a majority as someone who can deal wisely with the problem. Hillary Clinton fares best, though, continuing a dominance in foreign policy. In the last Economist/YouGov Poll, she was seen as most ready to be Commander-in-Chief, and more said they were confident in her ability to deal wisely with an international crisis than thought that about any of the six other leading candidates. This week, more are confident with Clinton’s ability to handle terrorism than are confident in any of the other candidates, but nearly half are not so sure.

Republican Donald Trump fares second best, but this poll was mostly completed before his statement Monday about not admitting Muslims into the United States. This poll can’t indicate whether remark and the aftermath changes public opinion about Trump and terrorism.

Some candidates receive significantly negative perceptions on their ability to handle terrorism. Just one in five say they are confident in Ben Carson, for example. Even Republicans are dubious about Carson on this issue: 39% of Republicans say they are confident in his ability to deal wisely with terrorism, 44% are not. Majorities of Republicans believe former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Trump would deal wisely with terrorism.

Among Democrats, 69% believe Clinton would deal wisely with terrorism. 42% say that about her main opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

See the Economist/YouGov results

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.