Orlando tragedy leaves its mark on US presidential race

People embracing next to a memorial at Manhattan's historic Stonewall Inn in support for the victims killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, on June 13.
People embracing next to a memorial at Manhattan's historic Stonewall Inn in support for the victims killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, on June 13.PHOTO: AFP

The mass shooting in Orlando - the deadliest in modern US history - is quickly making its mark on the campaign trail, but observers say whether it ends up helping Mr Donald Trump or Mrs Hillary Clinton will depend on what the dominant narrative of the tragedy becomes.

Mr Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for the November presidential election, could stand to gain if gun control emerges as the primary concern of voters in the coming months, but may be at a disadvantage if Americans start looking for someone they can trust to handle a crisis.

Analyst Harry Enten of the poll analysis site, FiveThirtyEight, noted: "There are a lot of directions in which this debate can go. Orlando involved a lone gunman, who swore allegiance to the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) group but didn't have strong ties to it. The attacks involved a legally purchased gun and occurred at a gay nightclub. This was a mass shooting, a terrorist attack and a hate crime, making it hard to predict how the American public will react."

The polls outline how each issue could play up the two nominees' strengths and weaknesses.

On guns, for instance, a New York Times analysis of Pew Research data shows that nearly half of white working-class Democrats think it is more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership. That makes guns the issue in which Mr Trump's views align most with those of general voters.

An emphasis on gun rights could thus help him appeal to white working-class Democrats without alienating any of his Republican base.

Not surprisingly, Mr Trump's response to the Orlando shooting involved attacks on Mrs Clinton over the gun issue. In a speech in New Hampshire a day after the shooting, he accused Mrs Clinton of wanting to take away guns and touted his endorsement from the gun lobby.

Mrs Clinton's own response to Orlando featured gun control, but also gave a glimpse into what the campaign considers her strengths - gay rights and anti-terrorism.

Her campaign has also sought to push the message that Mr Trump does not have the temperament to respond to such situations.

"Trump has offered no real plans to keep our nation safe and no outreach to the Americans targeted, just insults and attacks," said a Clinton spokesman.

Yet the terrorism issue is not a clear advantage for either candidate. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows that Mrs Clinton holds a nearly 20-point advantage when it comes to who voters think is better prepared to deal with an international crisis, but numbers are split in different polls on the broader issue of terrorism.

And as Princeton professor of history and public affairs Julian Zelizer noted in a CNN op-ed piece, there are arguments to be made against both Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton on the issue of terrorism.

Clinton critics will say she was not firm enough on terrorists when she was secretary of state, while Trump critics may say the shooting is a reminder of the dangers of the attacks he has made against different social groups.

"Whenever terrorism strikes in the middle of an election year, the parties need to adjust their campaigns in response to news," said Prof Zelizer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2016, with the headline 'Tragedy leaves its mark on presidential race'. Print Edition | Subscribe