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

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