WASHINGTON - For the first time since the Vietnam era, voters consider terrorism, war and foreign policy the most pressing issues facing the country, and they do so by a large margin, a development with strong implications for the presidential election.
Forty-one percent of voters believe national security and foreign policy are most important, according to a poll released yesterday by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In contrast, 26 percent of those questioned said the economy was the most important concern, and 26 percent cited other domestic issues.
The result, which reflects the opinions of about 2,000 voters questioned in early July and another 1,500 this month, suggests that concerns over Iraq and terrorism could play a significant role in the choices voters make in the Nov. 2 election.
In recent campaigns, foreign policy has taken a back seat to the economy and other domestic issues. But the prospect of another terrorist attack in the United States, the large-scale deployment of American troops overseas and the uncertain outcome of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are apparently behind a steady increase in concern among voters in recent years about national security.
"In 1996 it was 5 percent, and in 2000 it was 12 percent," said Pew center director Andrew Kohut, referring to voters who listed war, terrorism and foreign policy as their top concerns. "It's pushing higher ... and I think it's going to continue."
In addition, two-thirds of those surveyed said they were worried about a loss of international respect for the United States.
Surveys by other polling organizations also have suggested that national security is an issue of increasing influence in the presidential race, and the campaigns of President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry have adjusted strategies to address the trend.
Kerry strongly emphasized his military service and national security themes at the Democratic National Convention in July, and Bush is expected to stress similar themes at the Republican convention in New York this month.
The new poll shows greater voter concern about national security than do other recent surveys.
For instance, a mid-July poll by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found that 17 percent of voters were interested in hearing about the candidates' plans to deal with the war on terrorism, while 34 percent wanted to hear solutions on "domestic issues" and 26 percent wanted the campaigns to address jobs and the economy.
Another July survey conducted by The Washington Post found that 19 percent of voters thought terrorism was the most important issue facing the nation, another 19 percent said Iraq was their biggest concern and 29 percent cited the economy. Combined, terrorism and war in that poll would approach the Pew figure of 41 percent.
The Bush and Kerry campaigns have made it clear they will continue to promote martial themes through the election. The strategy, according to Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University, reflects both concern among voters and a practical political calculus within each campaign.
"I think it's an artifact of two things," Feaver said. "One is the real-world situation, not just post 9/11, but the fact that we're in the middle of two pretty significant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that are both gripping - they're not low-boil, they're significant. The second factor, which, of course, is reflecting the political reality, is that both parties are making a concerted effort to play on national security."
Feaver added, "It's part of the party calculation, frankly, that there's a real chance that there could be a terrorist strike again between now and the election, and no party wants to get caught off guard talking about school lunch programs."
But the Pew results do not offer a clear signal on which candidate benefits from the growing focus on national security.
Voters give Bush increasingly high marks, for instance, when asked whether they approve of his handling of terrorist threats. Fifty-eight percent questioned in the Pew-CFR poll said they approved of the president's performance in combating terrorism.
Iraq is another matter. A majority of voters, 53 percent, said they backed Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. But that result is far less than the 74 percent of voters who gave the same response in March.
At the same time, 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling the war today, compared with 43 percent who approve of the president's actions.
Whether those sentiments could help Kerry is unclear, though the poll suggests that undecided voters are more aligned with Kerry's supporters on Iraq.