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8 crazy things Americans believe about foreign policy

This evening’s town hall-style debate, we’re told, will be different. An intimate setting. Direct interaction with the common voter. The potential for curve-ball questions. While audiences might not relate to the presidential candidates or the media, moderator Candy Crowley told CNN, "they do relate to 80 people sitting on a stage that look like them, ...

This evening's town hall-style debate, we're told, will be different. An intimate setting. Direct interaction with the common voter. The potential for curve-ball questions. While audiences might not relate to the presidential candidates or the media, moderator Candy Crowley told CNN, "they do relate to 80 people sitting on a stage that look like them, and maybe have stories similar to theirs.... And I think that's where a candidate has to make a connection."

I'm all for the civic engagement that town-hall style debates promote, of course. But since Tuesday night's forum will feature domestic and foreign policy questions, it's worth noting that Americans have some astonishing misconceptions about international affairs (for more on how Americans view foreign policy, check out this great Carnegie Endowment/Pew Research Center infographic).

As the Washington Post's Dylan Matthews explained last month, the baffling fact that 15 percent of Ohio Republicans believe Mitt Romney deserves more credit than Barack Obama for killing Osama bin Laden may have as much to do with polling psychology and sampling error as with self-delusion or ignorance. But here are some other statistics that may surprise you:

This evening’s town hall-style debate, we’re told, will be different. An intimate setting. Direct interaction with the common voter. The potential for curve-ball questions. While audiences might not relate to the presidential candidates or the media, moderator Candy Crowley told CNN, "they do relate to 80 people sitting on a stage that look like them, and maybe have stories similar to theirs…. And I think that’s where a candidate has to make a connection."

I’m all for the civic engagement that town-hall style debates promote, of course. But since Tuesday night’s forum will feature domestic and foreign policy questions, it’s worth noting that Americans have some astonishing misconceptions about international affairs (for more on how Americans view foreign policy, check out this great Carnegie Endowment/Pew Research Center infographic).

As the Washington Post‘s Dylan Matthews explained last month, the baffling fact that 15 percent of Ohio Republicans believe Mitt Romney deserves more credit than Barack Obama for killing Osama bin Laden may have as much to do with polling psychology and sampling error as with self-delusion or ignorance. But here are some other statistics that may surprise you:

  • 41 percent of Americans believe China is the world’s leading economic power, according to a 2012 Pew poll (the correct answer is the United States, which 40 percent of respondents in the Pew poll selected)
  • 73 percent of Americans could not identify communism as America’s main concern during the Cold War, according to Newsweek, which administered an official citizenship test in 2011 (admittedly, it’s not entirely clear what if any alternative answers — the Soviet Union? Nuclear weapons? — the magazine accepted) 
  • 9 percent of Americans frequently worry about becoming a victim of terrorism, according to a 2011 AP-GfK poll (Reason magazine has calculated that the chances of being killed by a terrorist are roughly one in 20 million, and that "in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist")
  • Nearly 25 percent of Americans don’t know that the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, according to a 2011 Marist poll
  • 71 percent of Americans believe Iran already has nuclear weapons, according to a 2010 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll (Israel, the United States, and the International Atomic Energy Agency would beg to differ)
  • 33 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11 as late as 2007, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll (it’s worth noting that the number was down from 53 percent in 2003, and that more recent polls suggest the percentage has continued to decline since 2007) 

OK, so tonight’s town hall participants probably won’t bust out a world map to make a point or ask the candidates why they’ve never acknowledged Saddam’s role in 9/11. But a reference to China’s economic leadership or Iran’s nuclear weapons stockpile certainly isn’t out of the question.

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. Twitter: @UriLF

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