Behind the Numbers

Fear Factor

Are Republican voters as concerned about Iran and radical Islam as their candidates?

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.

The remaining Republican presidential hopefuls clashed fiercely over Iran's nuclear ambitions in the final debate, on Dec. 15, before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, with Ron Paul clearly staking out a position of nonintervention at odds with the others. By some measures, though, both sides are out of step with GOP voters on the issue.

Republican voters also appear to lack an appetite for engaging Iran militarily at the moment, at least while diplomacy is an alternative.

Americans are not fond of Iran. Half the public sees Iran as an enemy, a number that peaked among Republicans in a national CNN/ORC International poll this spring. Nearly seven in 10 Republicans called Iran's nuclear efforts a very serious threat to national security in a Quinnipiac University poll, and a similar percentage rated sanctions against the country as ineffective. Half of Republicans in that poll backed military action to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and nearly two in three supported such action if sanctions were unsuccessful.

But Paul's preference for diplomacy is also shared by many Republicans. More than six in 10 picked "economic and diplomatic efforts" as the best Iran policy right now, according to a November CNN/ORC survey; fewer than one in four chose military action. Paul's call for eschewing sanctions in favor of free trade agreements, however, stands in stark contrast with his fellow partisans, who see Iran as a genuine threat and an enemy. Over nine in 10 Republicans in a 2010 Pew Research Center poll approved of increasing sanctions in an effort to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The schism reflects a central challenge for Paul in winning his party's nomination. In a long-standing trend tracked by the Pew Research Center most recently this spring, by nearly 2-to-1 Americans see diplomacy rather than military strength as the best way to ensure peace, but Republicans see the military as more important than diplomacy.

To reduce the deficit, Paul proposes cutting "military spending, not defense," contending that a reduced presence around the world will not weaken America's military might. Nearly four in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents (39 percent) supported reducing military spending in an October Washington Post-Bloomberg poll, but more, 56 percent, were opposed.

Concern over Muslims also appears to underpin disagreements between Paul and his rivals on Iran. During Dec. 15's debate, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann argued that Iran's mission is to "extend jihad across the world and eventually to set up a worldwide caliphate. We would be fools and knaves to ignore their purpose and their plan." Paul countered that "to say all Muslims are the same.… This is dangerous talk."

Islam is a concern for many Republicans. Fully two-thirds of Republicans voiced an unfavorable view of the religion in a 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared with about half of all Americans. And Republicans split about evenly -- 43 to 44 percent -- on whether mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims.

Altogether, Republican skirmishes over Iran and military intervention generally do not seem to have benefited Paul so far. In Iowa, fully 46 percent of likely caucus-goers in an early December Post-ABC poll said Paul's opposition to U.S. military intervention was a major count against him, while fewer than half as many -- 22 percent -- said it was a major reason to back him.

Paul's opponents are sharpening their words on Paul's potential weakness. On Tuesday, Dec. 20, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich threw a jab at Paul's opposition-to-foreign-policy stance, according to the Washington Post's Peter Wallsten. "National security really matters," Gingrich responded when asked by a reporter about Paul. "Iran really matters. The fact that bad guys attacked the U.S. on 9/11 really matters. People need to take seriously when they go into the caucuses the issue of national security."

(Side note: A handy tool from the Washington Post's politics team allows you to examine what GOP candidates said in every televised debate so far.)


Behind the Numbers

Is Foreign Policy Obama's Safe Zone?

Not among Republicans.

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.

Sharp attacks on Barack Obama's foreign policy from GOP contenders may be a gamble given the president's relative popularity and broadly praised success routing out terrorism. Since the death of Osama bin Laden at least six in 10 Americans have approved of Obama's handling of terrorism, according to Washington Post-ABC News polls. And more than half the public in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday cited bin Laden's killing or bringing troops home from Iraq as the Obama administration's most positive accomplishment; about half as many chose domestic achievements.

But how thick is Obama's Teflon on foreign affairs? Beyond terrorism, polls show, he may be vulnerable.

While Obama earns overwhelmingly positive marks on his handling of terrorism, his ratings on foreign policy in general are more lackluster. The public split 47 to 45 percent on Obama's handling of international affairs in the aforementioned Post-ABC poll. And a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters in the same month showed Obama with a 49 percent approving of Obama on "foreign policy," 42 percent disapproving.

Obama enjoys mildly positive ratings on Iraq and Iran in November CNN and Quinnipiac polls but the public splits evenly on his handling of Afghanistan.

The Republican primary electorate is naturally more open to criticisms of Obama on foreign policy. While one in three Republicans approve of Obama's handling of terrorism -- four times the number approving of his overall job performance -- fully three quarters of Republicans disapprove of Obama on international affairs in general. Nearly as many disapprove of Obama on Afghanistan, and two in three disapprove of Obama on Iran.

Even after Republicans pick a candidate, Obama's sky high ratings on terrorism are not a complete foil to attacks on other aspects of his foreign policy. Among political independents - a key swing voting group -- Obama earns 42 percent approval for his handling of international affairs. A 51 percent majority of independents approve of Obama's handling of Iraq, and 46 percent give him positive marks on Afghanistan. By comparison, more than six in 10 independents approve of Obama on terrorism.

As we've noted before, voters say the economy and jobs are far and away the most important issues in their 2012 vote, bad news for Obama who earns especially weak ratings on the issue. Should an international crisis take center stage in 2012, though, Obama may not be on much better footing.