The FINANCIAL -- Terrorism rose to the top of the list of Americans' concerns about their nation last December after deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and it could happen again in the wake of Sunday's horrific massacre in Orlando. But if the same pattern occurs this time, terrorism would likely not remain the most important problem for long.
Three percent of Americans named terrorism as the most important problem in the U.S. last November. But after the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, 16% in December listed terrorism as the top problem, moving it ahead of the economy (9%) and the government (13%). It was the first time in 19 months that the public had named an issue other than the government or the economy as the nation's most important problem.
In January, however, both the government (16%) and the economy (13%) moved back ahead of terrorism (9%) as the most important problem, and they have been the issues most often mentioned in every poll so far this year. In a poll earlier this month, before the Orlando shooting, 18% of U.S. adults said the economy was the nation's most important problem, 13% named the government and only 4% named terrorism.
The Orlando tragedy has been variously described as terrorism, a mass shooting and a hate crime. The likelihood that concern about terrorism will spike again in response to the incident is made more likely by the emphasis political leaders have placed on its role in the tragedy. President Barack Obama called it "an act of terror," as did both Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Since 9/11 Fears Faded, Terrorism Seldom Seen as Most Important Problem
In Gallup polls from 1939 to the beginning of September 2001, terrorism was never mentioned as the most important problem in the U.S. by enough respondents to be reported as a separate category. But a month after the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., 46% of Americans listed terrorism as the most important problem facing the nation.
The number slowly dwindled through the next two years, falling below 10% for the first time in April 2003 as Americans' concerns gravitated toward economic problems and the Iraq War. Since then, a few events have triggered a spike in mentions of terrorism as the nation's most important problem, but each time, concerns faded within a few months. For four years, from February 2010 through January 2015, no more than 4% in any month considered terrorism the top problem facing the country.
Rise in Mentions of Guns as Most Important Problem Also Possible
The widespread calls for more gun control after Sunday's Orlando shooting could result in a higher percentage of Americans naming guns as the nation's most important problem, as has happened after some past mass shootings:
The highest percentage of Americans listing guns and gun control as the most important problem was 10% in May 1999, a month after two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. By January 2000, only 1% listed it as the nation's top problem. From then until late 2012, it was seldom mentioned as the most important problem.
In the months after the December 2012 shooting deaths of 20 children and seven adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, the percentage naming guns as the most important problem rose as high as 7%, but within a year, it fell below 1%.
After a white supremacist killed nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, polls in October showed 7% considered guns the most important problem.
In the same December 2015 poll in which terrorism topped the list of most important problems, 7% named guns.
Previous mass shootings and terrorist attacks -- with the exception of 9/11 -- have only temporarily increased the likelihood of Americans naming guns or terrorism as the nation's most important problem. That might be the case again this time, but there are some reasons why it might not.
The fact that 49 people were killed in Orlando makes it the worst mass shooting in the nation's modern history and the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11. It happened in the middle of a bitter presidential contest already marked by harsh exchanges between the candidates on the issues of terrorism and gun control. The combination of these factors almost guarantees that terrorism and gun control will be major, persistent themes in the candidates' campaigns over the next five months.