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.