More voters now say they consider national security issues their most pressing priority — particularly among self-identified Republicans. Among those voters, national security is within striking distance of the economy as the number one factor they consider as they think about their votes in 2016, according to Morning Consult polling.
In just the last year, the proportion of Republicans who say security is their top issue grew more than tenfold, from 2 percent in June 2014 to 29 percent earlier this month. The economy remains the top concern for a plurality of Republicans, at 35 percent.
“It has the ability to move swing voters more quickly than economics,” said Sean Noble, a prominent Republican strategist not attached to a 2016 contender. “The security issue will move them in a pretty dramatic way.”
Among all registered voters, 36 percent named economic issues as their top set of concerns. That matches figures from March and April as the lowest level since Morning Consult began asking the question in March 2014.
The proportion of Republicans prioritizing economic issues – 35 percent – is also near its lowest mark, after bottoming out at 33 percent in March. A year ago, 61 percent said economic issues were their top challenge
.Noble attributed the shift in voter priorities largely to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
As early as August 2014, Noble said his consulting group, DC London Inc., began hearing concerns about the terrorist group from focus groups.
“We noticed that the issue of ISIS was starting to pop up on people’s radar,” he said. “They would just kind of mention it without us prompting them.”
In a Morning Consult poll last month, 82 percent of registered voters said they think the Islamic State is a serious national security threat to the United States. That figure included 56 percent who said the threat is very serious.
Among Republican voters, the result is even more stark: 71 percent called the Islamic State a very serious threat, with another 18 percent calling the terrorist group a somewhat serious threat. Nearly six in ten Republican voters said the U.S. should increase its military presence in Iraq to defeat the group.
Rosenzweig said Republican candidates will seek to capitalize on the increasing importance of security issues by criticizing President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which GOP voters view as having failed.
Elevated concern over security is likely to benefit Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) in particular, Noble said.
“You’ve seen Rubio have a pretty good bounce, more so than many people expected,” Noble said. “He’s got probably among the top tier candidate by far the strongest foreign policy chops.”
Rubio sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and recently pushed for a wholesale renewal of National Security Agency surveillance authorities. He’s also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Rubio’s Republican primary competitors in the Senate also hold foreign policy credentials: Ted Cruz (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) sit on the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) is a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee as well as the Foreign Relations Committee.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another potential presidential candidate, was a longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee when he served in Congress.
But two other Republican candidates – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – could suffer for lack of foreign affairs experience. Both have sought to bolster their foreign policy credentials as they explored running by taking trips to European capitals, albeit with mixed results.
Security is also of increasing importance for Democrats and independents. Earlier this month, 11 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of independents said security is a top concern, compared with 1 percent for both groups last June.
For Democrats, that puts national security behind health care, a top priority for 18 percent of party voters. The 33 percent of Democratic voters this month naming the economy as their top priority ties a record low from March.
The most recent Morning Consult poll was conducted from June 12 through June 15 among a national sample of 2,039 registered voters. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.