Behind the Numbers

Little Trouble in Big China

Did Jon Huntsman waste his time as ambassador in Beijing?

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.

Jon Huntsman's two years as ambassador to China may have helped his Mandarin, but they've earned him almost no support in the race for the GOP presidential nod. Huntsman came in dead last in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses. Meanwhile, Texas Rep. Ron Paul -- who takes unorthodox views against foreign intervention as well as the federal government's reach back home -- finished a close third, a big improvement over his 2008 showing.

Do Republicans even value Huntsman's foreign policy credentials? Do they prefer Paul's stubborn anti-interventionist views? Or are voters simply focused on other issues and attributes, such as improving the economy, shrinking the size of the federal government, and defeating President Barack Obama in a general election?

The Iowa entrance poll

Over three quarters Iowa caucus-goers chose the economy (42 percent) or the deficit (34 percent) as the top issue in their vote, according to the network entrance polls. Some 13 percent chose abortion and 4 percent picked health care. The entrance poll didn't ask about international issues, but it's hard to blame them: pre-election polls showed that it was not a top deciding issue for voters.

Some 3 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers in a December Washington Post-ABC News poll named immigration as the most important issue in their vote, and 2 percent picked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most likely caucus-goers acknowledged that foreign affairs were important in a December CNN/Time/ORC poll, ranking close to abortion and gay marriage but behind the economy.

In the caucus-day poll, Huntsman's support peaked -- albeit at 3 percent -- among caucus-goers who named "experience" as the top candidate quality. Even so, a slender 16 percent of caucus-goers named this as the top candidate characteristic. About twice as many said defeating Obama was most important and about a quarter each sought a "true conservative" or someone with "strong moral character."

But in addition to the apparently low importance of these issues to Iowa caucus participants; it's not clear that Huntsman's international resume was a positive factor for voters. Indeed, they may have been a negative. A national Post-ABC poll last June asked Republicans whether Huntsman's service as "Ambassador to China in the Obama administration" made them more or less likely to vote for him. More said they would be "less likely" (23 percent) than "more likely" (5 percent), with an overwhelming 70 percent saying it wouldn't make a difference.

The fact that Huntsman's time overseas was as a member of the Obama administration also might be dulling its impact as a positive attribute. Nearly eight in 10 Republicans disapproved of Obama's job as president in the December Post-ABC poll. And as we've noted before, three quarters of Republicans disapprove of Obama on international affairs.

But Paul's strong showing in Iowa doesn't appear to be an endorsement of his foreign policy views. Paul energized young voters and independents, winning more than four in 10 in each group -- both of which now constitute an increased share of the electorate than in 2008.Twice as many likely caucus-goers in the December Post-ABC poll said Paul's positions on U.S. military intervention were a major reason to oppose rather than support him (46 to 22 percent), while nearly three in 10 said they weren't a major factor.

More likely, Paul's views on limited government helped him double his support from 2008. In the entrance poll, Paul earned a whopping 37 percent support among caucus-goers saying they sought "a true conservative." He also performed especially well among those choosing the "federal budget deficit" as the most important issue in their vote. And two in three likely caucus-goers said Paul's views on limited government were a major reason to back him in the Post-ABC pre-election poll, while few saw this as a negative attribute.

A New Hampshire opportunity?

Huntsman is performing much better among New Hampshire primary voters. He wins 10 percent in a Suffolk University poll of likely primary voters released Wednesday, placing him well behind Mitt Romney (43 percent), but closer to Paul's 16 percent and Newt Gingrich's 9 percent. Political ideology appears to be playing a major role. Some 17 percent of self-identified moderates support him, compared with 4 percent of conservatives. Moderate and liberals made up about one in six caucus-goers in Iowa, but could account for as much as half of voters in the New Hampshire contest.

Republicans on China

Different Republican constituencies split on whether to take tougher stances against China or develop closer economic ties, and Huntsman doesn't seem to have capitalized on either. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll identified three core Republican groups based on a battery of attitude questions. Nearly eight in 10 "staunch conservatives" favor getting tough with China on economic issues, but "main street Republicans" and "Libertarians" were more evenly divided on whether to get tough or build a stronger economic relationship.

All three Republican groups agree the United States should concentrate on problems at home rather than being active in world affairs. On that note, Republican voters may see Huntsman's experience as China ambassador as another strike against him.

Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Behind the Numbers

La Gran Problema

The GOP trouble with courting Hispanics is bigger than ever.

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.

Four years ago in Iowa, Republican caucus-goers chose illegal immigration as the most important issue facing the country. The issue of how to deal with over 10 million unauthorized immigrants is not yet playing a cerntral role in the 2012 GOP race, but fresh numbers from the Pew Hispanic Center reveal that Republicans have made little progress since 2008 in courting a fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc, two-thirds of whom voted for Barack Obama last time around.

In their basic political party identification -- the continental plates of American politics -- 67 percent of Hispanics identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared with 20 percent who lean toward Republicans. The 47-point Democratic advantage is larger than at any point in more than a decade of polls, including 2008, when 26 percent of Hispanics sided with the Republican Party. As we noted in the Washington Post yesterday, Obama leads Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney by a 68 percent to 23 percent margin among Hispanic voters in a hypothetical general election match-up.

The stakes for Republicans to increase their share of the Hispanic vote are high. The percentage of whites in the electorate dropped from 89 percent in 1972 to 74 percent in 2008, but John McCain received 90 percent of his support from whites. With more than eight in 10 black voters supporting the Democratic nominee in every recent election, Hispanic voters are key to expanding Republican support among the growing non-white population.

In both size and rate it's an extremely significant sector: The Hispanic population grew from 35 to 50 million in the past ten years according to census data, four times the pace of the overall public. Today, about one in six Americans of all ages is Hispanic. Hispanics made up more than four in ten New Mexico voters in 2008 and may count for more than one in six voters in Florida, Arizona, and Nevada in 2012 according to Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, all swing states that could play a decisive role. 

Potential inroads

Despite Republicans losing the Hispanic vote in every presidential election going back to 1972, Hispanic views on abortion, religion, immigrant deportations, and jobs offer potential avenues to winning Republicans support. Hispanics express greater opposition to abortion than the public overall, and over six in 10 say religion is very important in their lives, compared with about half of all those who lean Democratic and just over four in ten white Democrats.

Heightened unemployment among Hispanics -- over 11 percent in recent government data -- also might be a point of weakness for Obama. Nearly all Hispanic voters in the Pew poll said jobs are an important issue to them in the 2012 election, with half calling it "extremely important."

Obama's record high deportation rates have also spurned Hispanics. Nearly six in ten Hispanics in the new Pew survey disapprove of Obama's handling of immigrant deportations. Even so, no Republican candidates have called for fewer deportations, and Mitt Romney's heated rhetoric on illegal immigration has gained wide attention in the Hispanic media, which could weaken appeals in a general election.

While most Hispanics say stricter border security and enforcement of current laws are important in dealing with illegal immigration, about nine in ten support allowing young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally to become legal residents if they go to college or serve a term in the military.

Delayed impact

The wide Democratic advantage among Hispanics may help Obama in 2012, but much of their electoral clout has yet to be realized, due both to lower eligibility and turnout rates. Only two in three adult Hispanics are eligible to vote, compared with over nine in ten of all Americans. Even among those who are eligible, a mere 50 percent cast a ballot in 2008, compared with 65 percent of blacks and 66 percent of whites. As a result, the share of Hispanic voters in the electorate is increasing at a slower rate than the size of the Hispanic population overall.