- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
A growing body of research may suggest that there are very few truly undecided voters still out there, and that their role in deciding elections is exaggerated. But the Gallup polling firm apparently believes it’s tracked down 80 politically uncommitted Long Islanders to compose the audience at tonight’s town hall-style presidential debate, which will touch on a mix of foreign and domestic policy issues. All this raises the question: What’s the foreign policy of undecided voters?
I haven’t come across a study on this topic specifically, but a national poll released by the Foreign Policy Initiative late last month offers some clues. Here’s a quick look at the ways self-identified independents responded to the organization’s questions:
- Nearly 60 percent believe the United States is headed down the wrong track
- 49 percent say the economy is their top voting concern; only 5 percent say national security is
- Roughly 18 percent identify terrorists as the biggest threat to American national security interests, making it the most popular choice among the group, and 43 percent think the threat of terrorism on American soil has increased since 9/11
- 48 percent cite Iran as the country that poses the most danger to American national security interests
- Roughly 57 percent favor preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons even if that means taking U.S. military action against Tehran — placing independents between Democrats (49 percent) and Republicans (79 percent)
- Independents are pretty much evenly split on whether the United States should maintain its troop presence in Afghanistan to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists or withdraw U.S. forces regardless of whether Afghan security forces are prepared to security the country; Republicans favor keeping troops in the country while Democrats favor withdrawal
- Around 65 percent feel the United States should work with its allies to establish a no-fly zone in Syria
- 50 percent think we’re spending the right amount of money on national defense, putting independents at odds with Democrats (who are more likely to support reductions) and Republicans (who are more likely to support increases)
- Nearly 60 percent believe foreign aid is a waste, again placing independents between Democrats (42 percent) and Republicans (63 percent), but nearly three out of four would support foreign assistance if there was a system to ensure that the aid was used effectively
- More than 50 percent have an unfavorable view of China and just under 50 percent have an unfavorable view of Russia; more than 60 percent have an unfavorable view of Egypt
- 72 percent have a favorable view of Israel
- 64 percent think trade between the United States and foreign countries is a good thing
- Roughly 87 percent believe America is a force for good in the world and more than 90 percent say it is important for the United States to play a significant role in world affairs
Independents, of course, are not necessarily synonymous with undecided voters (according to the FPI poll, more than 40 percent of independents report that they’re either voting for Obama or leaning toward doing so, and just under 40 percent say the same about Romney).
But if you track another, significantly smaller group in the survey — those who identify as "firm undecideds" when it comes to the election — on the issues listed above, you’ll find the same broad trends. The portrait of the independent voter that emerges — focused primarily on the economy, wary of tinkering with defense spending, relatively hawkish on Iran and Syria, concerned about the rise of China, ambivalent on Afghanistan, skeptical of foreign aid, pessimistic about the direction of the country but bullish on America’s global leadership — is worth keeping in mind as you watch tonight’s debate.