The Secret Service reels from blunder to blunder, the Ebola virus finds new victims, and the black masks of ISIS march across Iraq. The embattled Democratic president’s foreign policy approval rating is plummeting. Voters across America have come to feel the Republican Party can better keep them safe.
In other words, a series of novel and terrifying developments overseas have brought things back to normal in the United States.
Republicans have owned domestic security since 1970. For nearly all of the past 40 years, polls have consistently shown that Americans trust Republicans to handle security—and the related issues of foreign affairs and the military—better than Democrats.
“Own” is, in fact, the academic term. Political scientists refer to the fact that Americans associate the parties with strengths on issues in a way that is sustained and long term as issue ownership. But why do Republicans own foreign policy? And why, so quickly after a Democratic takeover during the Iraq War, are Republicans reestablishing security dominance?
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Natural security landed firmly in the GOP column through a combination of cultural forces and historical chances.
Foremost is simple prioritization, according to Patrick J. Egan, a political scientist at NYU. In Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics, Egan found that the issue ownership is mostly a product of the parties prioritizing certain issues. When a party comes to power, it must decide how to allocate a limited budget, and how it does that affects how competent voters perceive it to be on various issues. Since 1972, Republican Party voters have made military spending far and away their top spending priority, while Democrats have prioritized fighting poverty. (While actual—rather than desired—defense spending has been heavily dictated by external security circumstances like the collapse of the Soviet Union, Republican administrations, particularly Ronald Reagan’s, have prioritized it, especially in relation to other forms of spending.)