That was all true even before the terrorist attacks in Paris ratcheted up national security as a dominant issue heading into the presidential election. Obama, who dismissed ISIS terrorists this week as “a bunch of killers with good social media,” is badly out of step with American public opinion on the crucial issue. This week’s ABC News/Washington Post survey showed 59 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is “at war with radical Islam”—a phrase most Democrats resist using. A sizable 60 percent majority supports sending ground troops into Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS. Even on the issue of housing Syrian refugees, on which leading Democrats have rallied behind the president, polls show a clear majority of voters—along with about one-third of the House Democratic caucus—now oppose such measures.
For Republicans and independents, national security has been a first-tier issue since the ISIS beheadings of American journalists in Syria last summer. But for Democrats, the issue lagged as a secondary one, even behind climate change—a point Bernie Sanders continued to make after the Paris attacks. Hillary Clinton’s experience in foreign policy is an asset, and she showcased her smarts—and differences with the president’s view of ISIS and urgency of the terrorist threat—at a Council on Foreign Relations speech last week. But she’ll be saddled by the record of the administration she served, under which ISIS metastasized as a threat. If experience was the most important factor in today’s politics, Clinton might have a lifeline. Republicans, however, will have loads of material with which to question her foreign policy judgment.
The Democrats’ hopes of holding the White House rest on: a) remobilizing the Obama coalition of millennials, single women, and nonwhite voters; and b) hoping that Republicans nominate someone outside the mainstream, like Donald Trump. In short: If the Republican Party doesn’t split in two—which is a distinct possibility if Trump is either nominated or runs as a third-party candidate—Republicans have a clear advantage. In the last two midterm elections, despite the divisive fights between the establishment and tea-party wings of the GOP, Republicans still won back the House and Senate in decisive fashion.
The most recent round of polling illustrates the emerging fundamentals. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who has been underscoring the importance of turning out the “rising American electorate,” released polling this month showing Clinton trailing Trump in Ohio, and only leading him by one point in Colorado and by two points in Florida. Right now, Greenberg concluded, core elements of the party’s base are not enthused to vote in the upcoming presidential election. With a more mainstream Republican tested, it’s likely Clinton would be trailing in all those battlegrounds. The Marquette Law School poll, the gold standard of polling in the Democratic-friendly Badger State, showed Clinton trailing Marco Rubio by a point, 48 to 47 percent. Fox’s New Hampshire polling showed Clinton in a dead heat against most opponents, but trailing Rubio by seven points and Jeb Bush/John Kasich by three.