Terrorism Worries Are Back; Bernie Sanders Is Up, GOP Is Steady (POLL)

Terrorism suddenly rivals the economy as the single most important issue.

November 22, 2015, 12:00 AM

— -- Terrorism suddenly rivals the economy as the single most important issue to Americans in the 2016 presidential election -- and a year out, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds more people paying close attention to the contest than at this point in any race back to 1988.

After years of dominating the political landscape, the economy now has company. Given the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, 28 percent of Americans now call terrorism the top issue in their choice for president, compared with 33 percent who cite the economy. Nothing else comes close.

Attention, moreover, is focused as never before. Three-quarters of Americans say they are closely following the 2016 race, including three in 10 who are following it very closely. That’s the highest level of attention at this point in a presidential race in polls back nearly 30 years.

Voting-wise, after its summertime churn, the race for the GOP nomination is in a lull; all the debates, discussion and occasional invective of the past month have changed almost nothing. But there’s some Democratic movement -- a 9-point advance for Bernie Sanders with Joe Biden off the books, and big shifts in some groups.

See PDF with full results here.

At 60-34 percent, Hillary Clinton is 26 percentage points ahead of Sanders, down from 39 points in October. He has gained significantly among registered Democrats and Democrat leaners under age 50, runs closely with Clinton among liberals and has closed the margin, to some extent, among nonwhites and women -- results that may give Clinton pause, if not palpitations.

In the Republican contest, Donald Trump wins support from 32 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who are registered to vote, while Ben Carson has 22 percent -- both precisely where they were in the last ABC/Post poll on the contest a month ago.

That puts 54 percent of the GOP preference on the side of these two non-politicians, just where most Republicans want it. Fifty-two percent say they are mainly looking for a candidate who’ll shake things up in Washington, and in this group, Trump commands 42 percent support, a major share of his total.

Nor is there change in the lower ranks. This poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds Florida Sen. Marco Rubio the only other candidate to break into double digits, with 11 percent support -- numerically a new high, but a scant 1 point more than he had last month. Ted Cruz has 8 percent, Jeb Bush 6 -- numerically a new low and less than a third of his high watermark last spring, before the summer's dramatic shifts in the GOP race.


On the Democratic side, Sanders has managed a sharp advance among Democrats and Democratic leaners younger than 50, gaining 23 points in this group since October, while Clinton’s lost 15. They now divide 53-43 percent, Sanders-Clinton.

At the same time, those older than 50 back Clinton by a whopping 79 to 14 percent, and she’s gained 10 points in this group in the past month.

Sanders has advanced by 11 points among women, to 32 percent, versus Clinton’s 63 percent; it’s 55-39 percent among men. He has gained 16 points, and Clinton’s lost 11, among nonwhites; she still leads by 2-1 in this group, 65-31 percent, a key one for her. Finally, Sanders has gained 17 points, and Clinton has lost 13, among liberals, to a greatly tightened 52-45 percent Clinton-Sanders race.


Trump's steady lead reflects his success in tapping into the broad anti-establishment, anti-immigration -- and now anti-refugee -- sentiment within the GOP. Despite his sometimes controversial statements -- or perhaps because of them -- he leads his competitors on key attributes and issues alike, and continues to be seen as most likely to win the party’s nomination.

Forty-two percent of leaned Republicans say they trust Trump over his top four opponents to handle terrorism; his nearest competitor, Bush, gets just 18 percent. Trump prevails by a slightly wider margin on trust to handle the economy, with 47 percent versus 15 percent for Carson.

Trump also leads, with 45 percent, in trust to handle immigration -- Rubio’s next with 18 percent -- and to handle tax policy -- 42 percent for Trump while the rest clumped behind. That leaves just one issue tested on which Trump doesn’t prevail: trust to handle health care; 35 percent pick Carson, a retired neurosurgeon; 26 percent, Trump.

In terms of personal attributes, 47 percent see Trump as the candidate best able to “bring about needed change in Washington,” versus 22 percent for his nearest competitor, Carson. Trump also leads in being seen as having the best chance to win the White House, 38 percent, and Carson again next at 22 percent.

Carson nips Trump in being seen as more honest (34 percent); Bush leads in having the best experience, and there’s a mash-up in who’s got the best personality for the job. What’s key here is “needed change” is the most desirable attribute by far, and on it, Trump and Carson consume 69 percent of the oxygen between them.


While fewer than one in 10 leaned Republicans cite immigration as the top issue in their choice for president, it remains a key topic in the GOP race. Overall, fewer than half of Americans, 42 percent, support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, as Trump has advocated. But among leaned Republicans who are registered to vote, support swells to 59 percent -- and 46 percent in this group back Trump for the nomination. Indeed pro-deportation leaned Republicans account for 83 percent of Trump’s support.

Recent anti-refugee sentiment also benefits Trump. Post-Paris, seven in 10 leaned Republicans oppose the U.S. taking in refugees from Syria and other Mideast countries. Support for Trump rises to 40 percent among anti-refugee registered voters, versus just 13 percent among those who support accepting these refugees.

Top issues

As noted, terrorism has re-emerged as a key issue, with a partisan division. Forty-two percent of leaned Republicans call it the single most important issue in their vote for president, while 29 percent pick the economy. Priorities flip for leaned Democrats -- 39 percent call the economy the top issue, while 19 percent say it’s health care, 18 percent terrorism.


Close attention to the race is high across the board, but especially so among leaned Republicans versus leaned Democrats, 82 to 74 percent. A net total of 75 percent say they’re closely following the contest, the highest at this point in polling since 1987. That compares to just 57 percent a year out from the 1988 election, and about two-thirds in 2007 and 2011 alike.

Leaned Republicans who are registered to vote also are more apt than registered leaned Democrats to say they’re certain to show up for the upcoming primaries and caucuses, 84 versus 71 percent. But intention to vote, at least at this stage, doesn’t make any substantive difference: In either contest, vote preferences among those certain to vote look almost exactly the same as they do among all registered voters.


This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone Nov. 16-19, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,004 adults, including 373 registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and 352 registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample, and 6 points for leaned Republicans and leaned Democrats alike, including the design effect. Partisan divisions are 33-23-36 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y. See details on the survey’s methodology here.

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