Don’t believe anyone who tells you how the attacks in Paris will affect the general election for president in November 2016. Depending on what happens or doesn’t happen, we can’t even say for certain if terrorism and the war against Islamic State will be leading issues by next fall. Memories (and media attention) are short.
Let’s suppose there are more attacks. Or thwarted plots. Or a military intervention that is considered a failure or a success.
We still don’t know how voters will react. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, George W. Bush’s approval ratings soared. Yet President Obama received only a minor, short-lived bump after the death of Osama bin Laden. Neither reaction was easily predictable.
What we do know is that, most times, foreign policy and national security have only minor effects on general elections. The big exception is when incumbent parties pay a price for unpopular and costly wars. At least, that’s what we’ve learned from experiences that are roughly similar — for example, the effects of U.S. troop deaths on presidential elections during the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Of course, something unprecedented could happen over the coming months. Then, perhaps, voters’ reactions will be different.
What is unlikely, however, is that the national-security records of the nominees will make much difference in how their parties fare in the general election. Democrats may be confident that Hillary Clinton’s edge in foreign-policy experience will boost her chances if terrorism is a big concern in fall 2016. Republicans may be certain that her connection to the Obama administration will make her vulnerable. Neither of these factors is likely to affect how people vote.
If the Obama administration is perceived as successful overall, it will boost any Democrat. If not, it will drag any Democrat down. It won’t matter that Clinton was once a part of the administration; the same thing would apply to any Democratic nominee. And on the Republican side, whoever wins the nomination will appear to be sufficiently well-informed and prepared once the general-election debates are over. Few swing voters will disqualify him or her based on inexperience; winning the nomination makes a politician seem presidential.
General-election voting these days is overwhelmingly about party, and people with strong party loyalty will tend to perceive events as vindicating what they already believe. Swing voters are mostly low-information voters. They’ll be aware of the Paris attacks, but it’s impossible to guess what, if anything, they’ll make of smaller defeats and victories.
If you’re looking for hints of what might happen next November, the main indicator we have at the moment is Obama’s approval ratings, along with measures of how the economy is doing. Trying to guess the election outcome based on trial match-ups of candidates now is a waste of time.
Until the conventions, many voters won’t be thrilled with their party’s prospective nominee. But eventually, almost all partisans will be enthusiastic, at least for a brief stretch next fall, about whomever their party has picked.
© 2015, Bloomberg