Obama’s incredible shrinking foreign-policy advantage

Just over a month ago, I wrote a post with the headline, "Dems haven’t had this much national-security swagger since LBJ." At the time, the Democrats were concluding their convention and President Obama was enjoying rare and resounding double-digit leads over his Republican challenger on foreign policy, national security, and counterterrorism. That was before the ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Just over a month ago, I wrote a post with the headline, "Dems haven't had this much national-security swagger since LBJ." At the time, the Democrats were concluding their convention and President Obama was enjoying rare and resounding double-digit leads over his Republican challenger on foreign policy, national security, and counterterrorism. That was before the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Obama's lackluster performance in the first debate, and Mitt Romney's sustained post-debate bounce

Fast-forward several weeks, and Romney appears to have made dramatic strides on foreign policy and national security. The wording of questions and types of respondents vary in the national polls below, so what follows is not an apples-to-apples analysis (sadly, there's no daily tracking poll for foreign policy). The most recent polls also don't reflect Obama's stronger outing in his second debate. But the general trend should be clear:

Foreign policy: Obama still beats Romney on handling international affairs, but his lead seems to be contracting. A Fox News poll conducted last week showed Obama with a 49-43 advantage over Romney, a far cry from the president's 54-39 lead in a Sept. 9-11 survey. Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll conducted Oct. 4-7 found that Obama had a 47-43 edge over Romney after enjoying a whopping 53-38 advantage in a Sept. 12-16 survey. The counterpoint is an Oct. 10-13 ABC News/Washington Post poll, which has Obama continuing to best Romney by 10 points (the survey did show the gap narrowing from 13 points in early September to five points in late September before expanding again). National security: Pollsters haven't asked much about national security specifically in recent weeks. But when they did in early August, Obama had a significant lead. Not anymore, at least according to an Oct. 5-7 Washington Times/Zogby poll in which Romney secured a 48-45 advantage. Just a week earlier, the same survey showed Obama leading Romney by a margin of 50-42.  Counterterrorism: In late September, some polls showed Obama still enjoying a substantial lead on handling terrorism, while others raised eyebrows in political circles by giving Romney the edge. A new Fox News poll suggests that the GOP candidate is gaining on the president, if nothing else. Obama had a 47-43 advantage in the Oct. 7-9 survey, compared with a 49-41 lead in a Sept. 9-11 poll. An Oct. 15 Ipsos/Reuters poll similarly gives Obama a 37-32 edge, compared with a far more comfortable 39-26 lead in a Sept. 10 survey.  

Just over a month ago, I wrote a post with the headline, "Dems haven’t had this much national-security swagger since LBJ." At the time, the Democrats were concluding their convention and President Obama was enjoying rare and resounding double-digit leads over his Republican challenger on foreign policy, national security, and counterterrorism. That was before the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate, and Mitt Romney’s sustained post-debate bounce

Fast-forward several weeks, and Romney appears to have made dramatic strides on foreign policy and national security. The wording of questions and types of respondents vary in the national polls below, so what follows is not an apples-to-apples analysis (sadly, there’s no daily tracking poll for foreign policy). The most recent polls also don’t reflect Obama’s stronger outing in his second debate. But the general trend should be clear:

  • Foreign policy: Obama still beats Romney on handling international affairs, but his lead seems to be contracting. A Fox News poll conducted last week showed Obama with a 49-43 advantage over Romney, a far cry from the president’s 54-39 lead in a Sept. 9-11 survey. Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll conducted Oct. 4-7 found that Obama had a 47-43 edge over Romney after enjoying a whopping 53-38 advantage in a Sept. 12-16 survey. The counterpoint is an Oct. 10-13 ABC News/Washington Post poll, which has Obama continuing to best Romney by 10 points (the survey did show the gap narrowing from 13 points in early September to five points in late September before expanding again).
  • National security: Pollsters haven’t asked much about national security specifically in recent weeks. But when they did in early August, Obama had a significant lead. Not anymore, at least according to an Oct. 5-7 Washington Times/Zogby poll in which Romney secured a 48-45 advantage. Just a week earlier, the same survey showed Obama leading Romney by a margin of 50-42. 
  • Counterterrorism: In late September, some polls showed Obama still enjoying a substantial lead on handling terrorism, while others raised eyebrows in political circles by giving Romney the edge. A new Fox News poll suggests that the GOP candidate is gaining on the president, if nothing else. Obama had a 47-43 advantage in the Oct. 7-9 survey, compared with a 49-41 lead in a Sept. 9-11 poll. An Oct. 15 Ipsos/Reuters poll similarly gives Obama a 37-32 edge, compared with a far more comfortable 39-26 lead in a Sept. 10 survey.  

The Pew poll released this week also shows Obama losing some support for his response to the Libya attack, Obama and Romney running neck-and-neck on dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, and Romney leading Obama by nine points on handling China’s trade policies.

As I mentioned before, it’s important to emphasize that these polls do not capture Obama’s performance in the second debate. But when CNN polled Americans who watched this week’s town hall and asked them which candidate would do a better job handling foreign policy, Obama emerged with a mere 49-47 advantage over Romney.

Obama clearly still has the overall edge on foreign policy. But his dominance appears to be waning — just in time for a debate on foreign policy next week.

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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