Behind the Numbers

Newt’s Numbers, Cain’s Cuts

Is Gingrich trusted with the '3 a.m. phone call'? What the polls tell us about the Republican candidates on foreign policy.


Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Gingrich trusted with "3 a.m. phone call?": Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has become a frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination by consolidating support among key GOP groups, and while some have dismissed him as another Republican "flavor of the month," his longtime Washington ties may give him a key edge over other contenders: experience. Fully 36 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said Gingrich is the most qualified candidate to be commander in chief in a November CNN/ORC poll, topping the 20 percent who named Mitt Romney.

The results echo a November Fox News poll that found likely primary voters trusting Gingrich with nuclear weapons more than any other candidate. About half as many trusted his top rival Romney. Indeed, almost eight in 10 Republicans said Gingrich has the experience to serve effectively as president, along with a similar number who said this about Romney. Fewer than half of Republicans thought Cain possessed the necessary experience to serve as president (the poll was conducted before accusations that Cain was involved in a 13-year extramarital affair).

Military spending cuts divide public: Embattled Republican presidential contender Herman Cain argued forcefully against military spending cuts in a speech on Tuesday, criticizing what he called a "cut, cut, cut" approach to national security. Cain’s position echoes those other Republicans aimed at protecting military spending following the failure of Congress’ supercommittee to produce a $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts.

Americans overwhelmingly see the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan causing financial problems for the country. Six in 10 adults said the wars deserved "a great deal" of responsibility for size of the national debt in a Pew Research Center poll this spring, compared with about four in 10 who blamed the national economy and a quarter who cited increased domestic spending.

Possibly reflecting war-weary attitudes of a public after 10 years of wars in Afghanistan and about as many in Iraq, nearly two-thirds of Americans approved of reducing military commitments overseas to help reduce the debt in a September Pew Research Center poll. But fewer support reducing military spending in general — half of adults in an October Washington Post-Bloomberg News poll — and just four in 10 backed "major cuts in military spending" in a November CNN/ORC poll.  

Part of the reluctance to institute sharp cuts may be the overwhelmingly positive image of the military among the general public. Fully 78 percent of adults expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military in a June Gallup poll, higher than any of the 15 other institutions tested and at least twice the number who had confidence in the Supreme Court, the presidency or Congress. Even though less than 1 percent of adults served in the armed forces in the past decade, a September Pew poll found that most report having family members who once served or are currently serving in the military.

Pakistan controversy highlights popular anti-terrorism program: The ongoing snafu over a NATO air strike killing 24 Pakistani soldiers renewed the focus on U.S. drone strikes, which are overwhelmingly unpopular among Pakistanis but seen by Americans as one of the most effective measures for reducing the threat of terrorism. The situation may fuel distrust between the two nations, who already hold staunchly negative views of each other.

More than seven in 10 Americans in a September Washington Post-ABC News poll said missile strikes against suspected terrorists were effective at reducing the terrorist threat since the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks. In addition to spanning partisan lines, many more said such attacks were effective than said so about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose popularity has soured after initially strong support.

The current controversy does little to help already strained relations between the Americans and Pakistanis. Nearly three-quarters of Pakistani adults expressed an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. in a 2011 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project; just over one in 10 offered positive ratings. And while ratings did not go down further in the immediate aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s killing, over six in 10 Pakistanis disapproved of that U.S. operation.

Even more Americans hold negative views of Pakistan. Fully 81 percent rated the nation unfavorably in a May CNN/ORC poll (pdf), ranking almost as unpopular as Iran and North Korea.

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