In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis committed campaign suicide when, in a photo op, he oddly popped out of the top of a U.S. military tank while wearing a helmet. Reporters on-site reportedly broke into laughter. Voters were largely turned off. It was an ill-conceived, goofy image that became political lore for future campaign operatives, who would warn colleagues: “Let’s not pull a Dukakis here.”
But the doomed appearance was really just a visual exclamation point for a much deeper problem facing Dukakis and his fellow Democrats. Throughout the 1980s, and really going back to the failed presidential bid of George McGovern in 1972, voters found the Democrats soft on national defense. Fear of an attack by the Soviet Union (or even the rampant, unimpeded spread of Communism) had Americans worried.
The prevailing feeling at the time was that Republicans, particularly the likes of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush, provided the courageous thinking and global bravado that kept America and the world safe; whereas Democrats wanted to slash defense spending and thus weaken the U.S. Democrats generally boasted that more spending on nuclear or similar weapons was a waste of money — proclamations that did not make the average citizen feel safer in a period that was smothered with tension. Polling at the time found Bush leading Dukakis by margins of 2–1 on who would best secure our national defense.
Fast forward to the present, and it appears a new security-related concern has emerged to occupy the minds of Americans — and this time the worry is terrorism. And once again it looks like Democratic leaders may be failing to take actions that would assuage voter angst.
The American electorate is genuinely fearful of terrorism, and growing more so by the day. In fact, not only has Americans’ fear of becoming a victim of terrorism been growing the last few years, but it is now at its highest point since the 9/11 attacks:
And just like the concern Americans had back in the ’80s, the increasing uneasiness created by the shadow of terrorism looks to be largely void of partisanship. Republican voters (and often independents) have always been vocal and consistent in their worry about terrorism and its effects, but now Democratic voters have joined them. In the middle of primary season last year, Democrats cited “Defending the country from terrorism” as the third-most-important priority facing the nation, just behind improving education and strengthening the economy. Defending against terrorism outscored dealing with climate change (a party staple) by a weighty 16 percentage points.
But as voters continued to amplify their anxiety around the threats they felt terrorism posed, Democratic politicians seemed to be tone deaf. Voters last summer — even those supporting nominee Hillary Clinton — suggested they wanted to hear more during the upcoming presidential debates about what the candidates would do to keep America safe from terrorism. More, in fact, than about any other single topic, including economic growth, gun policy, health care, or climate change.
It wasn’t that voters didn’t care about those other issues — clearly they did — but they really cared about terrorism. And perhaps rightly so, as jihadist-related terror activities have grown meaningfully over the last several years:
The demacratic lemmings running off the cliff blindly and without heed