Crunching the Numbers on the GOP Candidates

What the polls tell us about the Republican candidates on foreign policy.


Most Wednesdays, starting today, we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Republican presidential hopefuls clashed repeatedly over foreign policy and national security issues Tuesday night. While these issues are largely at the back of most voters’ minds, the stark divisions on the debate stage highlight key challenges the candidates have in courting Republicans across the country.

Immigration: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who sits atop recent polls, voiced a relatively moderate position on immigration, arguing against large-scale deportations that would separate long-time illegal immigrants from their families. Polls find a wide range of support for allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. under certain conditions, but Republicans are consistently more resistant to these policies than other voters. In a June Gallup poll, two in three Republicans said government should focus on halting the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. rather than dealing with those who have already arrived.

Israel and Iran: The candidates differed markedly on how much support to offer Israel should the nation launch military attacks on Iran. Republicans are generally more supportive of Israel than Democrats or political independents, and they express higher concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Most recently, more than six in 10 Republicans in a September Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll said they sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians. In addition, half of Republicans in a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday say the U.S. should take military action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, compared with roughly three in 10 Democrats and independents.

Foreign aid: Republican candidates face a particularly thorny issue with regard to foreign aid, especially with the meta-issue of reigning in the federal budget deficit. While a key part of the U.S. foreign policy, especially in trouble areas such as Pakistan, more than six in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents favored cutting foreign aid in a January Gallup poll.

Domestic issues prime in 2012: With fewer than 12 months away from the presidential election, American voters are intensely focused on the national economy — particularly unemployment — rather than foreign policy issues. A 56 percent majority volunteered the economy or jobs as the most important issue in their choice for president in a November Post-ABC poll, with 28 percent citing other domestic issues. By contrast, less than 2 percent named the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, terrorism or foreign policy generally.

The national focus is no surprise given 9 percent unemployment and a persistent economic slump, but it bodes poorly for President Obama, who earns his highest job approval ratings on terrorism and national security but rates far lower on the economy and jobs. More than six in 10 Americans in a November CBS News poll approved Obama’s handling of the threat of terrorism, but only one in three give him positive marks on handling the economy.

Obama’s ratings on foreign policy generally are lackluster — 45 percent in the CBS poll — but the public largely backs the recent decision by Obama and Iraqis to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of the year. Nearly eight in 10 Americans supported the drawdown in the latest Post-ABC poll, including majorities across the political spectrum.

Are Americans becoming war weary? Roughly a year after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, most Americans said the U.S. should be ready and willing to use military force around the world. Fast forward almost a decade and public opinion has flipped, with over half now saying the nation should be very reluctant to use military force, according to a CNN poll released Tuesday. Nearly three quarters of the public now says the U.S. should not attack another country unless attacked first, a sentiment held by a bare majority in 2004.

The shift in attitudes toward preemptive conflict may reflect a public jaded by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the outset, Post-ABC polls found more than seven in 10 supporting a ground invasion in Afghanistan and a majority backing the Iraq war while President George W. Bush rode approval ratings upwards of 60 percent.

Two years after the Iraq invasion, fewer than half the public believed the Iraq war was worth the cost, a number that’s dwindled steadily over the years to one in three in the latest Post-ABC poll. And while somewhat more say the war in Afghanistan has been worth it, a majority of the public says the opposite. As noted, the public overwhelmingly supports withdrawing all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 — an action announced by Obama and Iraqi president Nouri al-Malaki in October — and more than seven in 10 supported removing a substantial number of troops from Afghanistan this past summer, according to a June Post-ABC poll.

American exceptionalism wanes: The stereotype of Americans as elitists who thumb their nose at other cultures has some basis in fact. The catch? That strutting attitude may be fading away.

In 2002 six in 10 U.S. adults agreed that "our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior," almost double the number of French adults holding such a view and substantially higher than other Western European countries, according polls by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

By 2011, however, just under half of Americans take this view, bringing them in line with Germans and not far from Spaniards in believing their culture is superior. Younger Americans see the United States as less exceptional than their elders; fewer than four in 10 of adults under age 30 see their culture as superior, compared with six in 10 of those over age 50. The youngest generation isn’t solely responsible for the changing viewpoint. The view that America is superior has fallen by double digits among older and younger Americans alike over the past decade.

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