Our Impact

How Third Way Helped Democrats to Close the Security Gap on National Security

For three decades after the Vietnam War, Democrats consistently trailed Republicans by enormous margins on the question of which party they trust to keep the country safe. We dubbed it the “security gap,” and we noted that it was a serious problem both substantively and politically for Democrats.

Substantively, it’s dangerous if one of the country’s major parties is viewed as unreliable on national security—the public must have faith that a president of either party could preserve, protect, and defend the nation.

Politically, national security was badly hurting Democrats. Just before the 2004 election, the security gap yawned to a 35-point chasm, and polls showed that John Kerry lost the presidential election largely on the depth and persistence of that gap—even despite him being a decorated war hero. Democrats down the ballot from Kerry also lost, especially to voters highly concerned about national security.

Third Way launched a campaign in 2005 to explore ways to close the security gap. Through our extensive public opinion research and a series of retreats with high-ranking security experts, we evaluated the depth of the problem. Then, we released a groundbreaking framework to help Democrats characterize their approach to national security as “Tough and Smart,” enabling them to deftly address these issues as the Iraq War approached its nadir.

Incumbent Senators, dozens of congressional candidates, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama used our “tough and smart” messaging and ideas in their 2008 campaigns. Over the following years, we worked closely with Democratic campaign committees and individual Members of Congress to train them on our approach and regularly update them on how to respond to new issues. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, a project ally, called our “Tough and Smart” campaign “one of the best things to happen to Democrats in a long, long time.”

After we took on this campaign, the security gap narrowed dramatically, falling to zero in 2011. Despite Democratic losses since, the gap was just seven percent in 2016, putting Democrats on far better footing to debate Republicans on national defense issues.

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Third Way is a non-profit organization. Our policy innovations, rigorous research, and issue campaigns are made possible by the sustained engagement and generous contributions of our supporters. For more information on how to support the work of Third Way, please contact:

Emily Sternfeld
Vice President of Development and External Affairs
(202) 384 1700
[email protected]


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