What do Ohio and Florida voters think about when they think about foreign policy?

While I was getting drunk in Mexico, I see that the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs commissioned a poll of 600 "active voters" in Ohio and a similar amount in Florida to see what swing state voters think about foreign affairs.  In Politico, Graham Allison and Mike Murphy co-author their take: It has ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

While I was getting drunk in Mexico, I see that the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs commissioned a poll of 600 "active voters" in Ohio and a similar amount in Florida to see what swing state voters think about foreign affairs.  In Politico, Graham Allison and Mike Murphy co-author their take:

It has long been accepted wisdom that Americans “don’t know much about history, don’t know much geography”— to recall the words of a golden oldie. So most folks managing, covering, or watching current campaigns will be surprised to learn that the majority of likely voters in the critical swing states of Florida and Ohio not only know more about the world outside, but care more, and want to know more than most candidates imagine.

Well.... sort of.  As Allison and Murphy acknowledge later on in the essay:

While I was getting drunk in Mexico, I see that the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs commissioned a poll of 600 "active voters" in Ohio and a similar amount in Florida to see what swing state voters think about foreign affairs.  In Politico, Graham Allison and Mike Murphy co-author their take:

It has long been accepted wisdom that Americans “don’t know much about history, don’t know much geography”— to recall the words of a golden oldie. So most folks managing, covering, or watching current campaigns will be surprised to learn that the majority of likely voters in the critical swing states of Florida and Ohio not only know more about the world outside, but care more, and want to know more than most candidates imagine.

Well…. sort of.  As Allison and Murphy acknowledge later on in the essay:

When asked what international issues they want to hear Romney and Obama speak to, the first responses are Iran’s nuclear weapons program and terrorism, far ahead of the global economy. Both in Ohio and Florida, by a margin of almost 2-1,voters believe the Arab Spring has affected American interests negatively, not positively. Voters have mixed views on U.S. global engagement and are split almost down the middle on isolationism. Given that Florida Republicans and independents overwhelmingly take the view the U.S. should pay less attention to problems overseas, two decidedly internationalist candidates will tread carefully.

But even those who oppose America taking a more active role in foreign affairs believe that understanding foreign affairs is essential because events abroad can increase the threat of terrorism or draw America into foreign wars. This is an especially relevant concern for these two states, where the majority have a relative who has served in the military. 

Now on the one hand, this poll makes it clear that isolationists are not know-nothings — even those individuals who don’t want foreign entanglements want to know more about the world.  Which is smart… because greater knowledge is a good way to avoid foreign entanglements. 

On the other hand, a peek inside the poll numbers makes it clear that this desire to avoid foreign entanglements is pretty strong.  When asked whether "it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs" or whether the U.S. "should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home," a plurality of Floridians (48% to 45%) prefer concentrating on the home front.  Intriguingly, Ohioians are more cosmopolitan, with 51% preferring an active role and only 42% opposed.  This is intriguing because the Midwest is often thought to be more isolationist than Florida — and the poll shows that Floridians are much more well-travelled to Ohioians.  Still, the important thing is that compared to past polling on this subject, these are very strong numbers for isolationism — or, dare I say, a more realpolitik perspective. 

The poll also shows that Americans are very wary about the Arab Spring:

Voters are pessimistic about the impact of Arab Spring on American interests. In Florida, 27% said it is good while 47% said it is not good and 25% are unsure. The numbers were similar in Ohio – 26% said good, 41% said not good, with 33% unsure.

Also, in terms of debate topics, the issues that piqued the interest of poll respondents were, in descending order, Iran, terrorism, Afghanistan, human rights, the global economy, China, Arab Spring, and Europe.  This must make Bob Schieffer pretty happy.  This is one of those cases when the wisdom of crowds doesn’t hold however — because these voters are pretty uninformed about foreign affairs (a strong majority of respondents believes that Japan possesses nuclear weapons).  

To be honest, however, the single-scariest data point in this survey is that  70% of Floridian responses said that "cable television news stations like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC" was a main source for their opinions about foreign affairs. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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