How Terrorists Could Impact The 2024 Election, Part Two

sign with American flag stating "Vote Here"Sign at South Cobb Recreation Center voting location. Photo:Cobb County Courier/Larry Felton Johnson

By John A. Tures, Professor of Political Science, LaGrange College

In my 9/11 column, I wrote about a lesser-known subject in terrorism: the ability of it to affect elections in democratic countries. Sadly, it’s happened before, and it could impact our next election in 2024 unless we recognize the threat and take steps to prepare for it.

The first part of the column covered my research on how terrorists attacked Spain on 3/11/04 in an attempt to disrupt that contest. I noted how the Partido Popular, Spanish conservatives, would have withstood the attacks, had they not chosen to falsely blame the Basques for it, instead of al-Qaeda. I then covered the Bin-Laden video in 2004, and how a misleading poll (showing Bush with a big six-point lead) led the media to attribute Bush’s reelection to that tape, when those sampled could not have even known of its existence.

In 2008, few attacks were occurring, and Americans focused their attention on the Great Recession. Terror attacks weren’t even surveyed in 2012, after Bin-Laden was killed. But in 2016, my original research shows that the election may well have been decided by terrorism.


Early in the election contest, Clinton may have led on the issue, but Republicans were more focused on terrorism. As Bethany Albertson, Joshya Busby and Shana Gadarian contend “The newly released American National Election Studies (ANES) pilot study, which was conducted in January, provides a window into this question. The data show that anxiety about terrorism is concentrated among Republicans and correlated with support for Donald Trump — but there remains considerable evidence that Hillary Clinton is the candidate advantaged on this issue. In the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, it’s not surprising that people expressed concern about terrorism.  Almost half (43 percent) said they were ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ worried that ‘that the United States will experience a terrorist attack in the near future.’ An additional 25 percent were ‘moderately worried.’”

After a terrorist opened fire in an Orlando nightclub, killing scores of patrons in the Summer, polling on terrorism showed Clinton with an early lead. “The ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that Clinton leads Trump 50% to 39% on who would best handle terrorism, and those surveyed believe she responded better than Trump to the Orlando shooting, 46%-28%, respectively,” Daniella Diaz noted. “Those surveyed also believe presumptive Democratic presidential nominee showed better temperament than her Republican counterpart in response to the attack, 59% to 25%, respectively. Clinton is also favored in confidence that she can handle a similar attack as president compared with Trump (53% to 34%) and that she has better proposals for preventing future attacks (44% to 35%).”

But another survey showed the ability of terrorism to affect the minds of many in the United States. “Americans are more likely to think terrorist attacks in the U.S. are imminent now than at any point since 2003, according to a CNN/ORC Poll conducted after a shooting in Orlando that ranks as the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11,” Jennifer Agiesta wrote. “Overall, 71% say further acts of terrorism are very or somewhat likely in the United States over the next several weeks. Concerns about a terror attack in the U.S. haven’t been that high since March 2003, in the days after the U.S. began its war with Iraq. Nearly one-quarter of Americans, 24%, consider an attack “very likely,” and except for a survey conducted just after Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011, that’s the highest share to say so since November 2001.”

Yet by September, the support for Clinton on the issue of terrorism narrowed in the wake of attacks in New York, in a series of surveys. “Donald Trump took full advantage of the opportunity Monday to return to blasting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for failing to keep the country safe in the wake of this weekend’s bomb attacks in New York City…The polls offer a more nuanced picture. Voters trust Clinton over Trump by a narrow margin when it comes to terrorism and national security — a reversal from past elections when Republicans were seen as the party stronger on national defense. But that’s not the end of the story: Trump’s supporters are far more concerned about terrorism than Clinton’s, suggesting the GOP nominee could appeal to voters who are increasingly anxious about safety at home,” claimed Steven Shepard. As a result, the race between Clinton and Trump also tightened in the polls as well. This even applied to another ABC News/Washington Post poll. “And in an ABC News/Washington Post poll this month, half of registered voters said they trust Clinton more to handle terrorism, more than the 41 percent who trust Trump — though that margin narrows to 48 percent for Clinton to 45 percent for Trump among likely voters.”

ABC News reported on Election Day that terrorism was the second biggest issue for voters (18 percent of those surveyed agree). “There’s a big difference, though by candidate support, with Clinton’s supporters relatively more focused on the economy and foreign policy, Trump’s on terrorism and immigration.”

CNN’s own exit polls found that only 41% of voters answered “yes” to the question “How is the fight against ISIS going?” Another 53% interviewed said “badly” in response to the question about the war against ISIS. Those thinking the war was going well picked Clinton by a 73%-22%, while 68% of those thinking the war vs. ISIS was going badly preferred Trump to 25% for Clinton.

The voters’ concerns were not imaginary. According to The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), 2016 featured the second most attacks in the United States, the third most total fatalities in the United States, the third most U.S. fatalities in the United States, and the fourth most U.S. Fatalities worldwide, between the years 1995-2016.

Yes, terrorism was not the only issue in 2016. There was the economy, sexism, the border wall, and other issues. But no issue experienced changed over time, the way terror attacks sprang up during the campaign. And consequently, Clinton’s big lead on the issue evaporated as well.

What lessons can we learn? First, the issue should not be ignored, the way it was in 2012. Just because Bin-Laden was dead didn’t mean a group like ISIS would take al-Qaeda’s place. Yes, the pandemic and the economy dominated in the 2020 election, but the issue of terrorism could spring back quickly. Secondly, it may be a different set of terrorists, not from the Middle East, but mass shootings, bombings and car driving attacks by far-right groups (the same way the attacker changed between 2012 and 2016). Third, candidates cannot ignore the issue, but prepare an anti-terrorism strategy, to counter violent attacks from abroad or at home. Fourth, candidates needs to be honest about what is happening, and not use an attack to try and score political points, stretching the truth. And fifth, the media needs to take better care of to not be swayed by the latest poll, but to see who is surveyed, and when.

Without these precautions, we can well see another pair of elections, like two in 2004, be affected by terrorism. And those attackers saw their impact, and planned even more deadly plots as a result, thinking their actions were successful.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His views are his own. He can be reached at His Twitter account is JohnTures2.