To add to your post, Jennifer: I spent some time this morning reading through the new Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner Research survey on the two parties and national security. The executive summary states:
The historic gap between the parties on national security, which dramatically closed in 2006, has begun re-opening in recent months. The opportunity for Democrats is that the public is deeply unhappy with the Bush approach to Iraq and other foreign policy issues, believing that recent Republican national security policies have been both ineffective and – from energy policy to the treatment of our troops and veterans – particularly harmful to the well-being of average Americans. The challenge is that large shares of the public still perceive Democrats as unwilling to use force, out of touch with the military, and too willing to put politics over principle on security.
GQR are worried, and rightly so. From their (Democratic) point of view, the reopening of a national security gap might be the most dangerous political development of recent months. They see some openings, though with voters who think Republicans are “stronger” but also more “reckless.” Thus, on issues directly related to security, the GOP has much higher ratings, but on issues related to general foreign policy the Democratic Party does have some advantage.
Look at the numbers from the full document. Which Party will better keep America strong? 43% say Republicans, 38% say Democrats. Who’s better on homeland security? Republicans, 43-37. National Security? Republicans, 49-35. Combating terrorism? Republicans, 48-33. Ensuring a strong military? Republicans, 57-27 (!). However, on foreign policy, Democrats do better: 45% v. just 39%. On Iraq? 47-36. On reducing dependence on foreign oil? 45-32.
These results are true generally for Republicans v. Democrats. But for McCain v. Obama the gap is even starker. When the names of the candidates are inserted instead the names of parties, the outcome becomes much more favorable for the GOP candidate. Not only does he maintain the lead on national security, McCain also erases the Democratic lead on foreign policy (46% McCain, 45% Obama) and Iraq (46% McCain, 44% Obama). Obama gets the higher confidence rate on one issue only – reducing dependence on foreign oil (49% Obama, 3% McCain).
Why do voters, both in focus groups and in the poll believe that the Democrats will be weaker on national security?
[T]he number one reason-picked by 33% of all respondents-is that Democrats” change positions depending on public opinion.” Moreover, when we ask respondents to compare the two parties, likely voters choose Democrats over Republicans as the party “too focused on public opinion” by a 27-point margin. Even Democratic base voters agree: liberal Democrats point to their own party as the one “too focused on public opinion” by an 18-point margin, and moderate/conservative Democrats say this by 25 points.
Come to think of it, this is exactly what makes the battle over “flip-flopping” so much more damaging to Democrats. The public is more than ready to believe that a Democratic nominee has changed his mind because of polls rather than because of need for reconsideration.