Behind the Numbers

Taking Swings at China

Does it really work to use Beijing as a political punching bag?

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.

President Barack Obama and his eventual Republican opponent will spend much of the year focusing on who is best equipped to create jobs and improve the economy, with Americans' ambivalent public views about China's economic rise a possible centerpiece.

Public opinion surveys suggest the American public is quite receptive to anti-China rhetoric, particularly when it comes to that country's emergence as an economic power.

More than six in 10 adults see China's economic expansion hurting the United States, according to a November CBS News/New York Times poll, a sentiment that spans traditional partisan divides. About as many called competition with China a "major threat" to the economic well being of the United States in a December Pew Research Center poll, with nearly nine in 10 saying China is at least a minor threat. The intensity of China antipathy is limited. A slender 12 percent in the CBS poll classified China as an enemy, with four times as many saying the nation is "friendly, but not an ally."

The target: Non-college whites

Tough talk on China could play a particularly strong role as candidates try to court white voters who lack college degrees. Occupying the front cover of the latest Atlantic magazine, many of these voters have personally experienced the impact of China's rise, seeing manufacturing jobs go overseas. The December Pew poll found concern about China's threat to the U.S. economy peaked among whites without college educations.

Whites without college degrees also make up large swaths of the electorate in critical "rust belt" states, many of which are up for grabs in the 2012 election. In 2008, non-college whites made up at least half of voters in Ohio and Michigan and nearly four in 10 voters in Pennsylvania. Obama lost non-college whites by 18 percentage points nationally in 2008, and he trails among this group in a contest with Mitt Romney by 20 points in a December Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Blame Obama?

Part of the reason China may receive negative attention is that Americans have yet to decisively blame Obama for the nation's continued economic troubles. A December CBS News poll found 12 percent blaming the Obama administration for the economic conditions; the same number blamed Wall Street, while slightly more blamed Congress (16 percent) and the Bush administration (22 percent). Nearly a quarter blamed all of these groups.

Republicans candidates have focused sharply on the president and the economy, blaming him for continued high unemployment and slow job creation. But they haven't advocated a more friendly relationship with China, especially on the issue of trade. In one example, though critical of Obama's approach, Romney favors an even stronger stance, opting to designate China as a currency manipulator and attacking "unfair trade practices."

Patriotic undertones

A major undercurrent to the 2012 election is the sense that American influence in the world is on the wane. More than seven in 10 said this in an October poll by Time magazine and SRBI, and most of this group said China's rise has played a role. Romney has run with this sentiment -- offering his candidacy as an antithesis to Obama's economically distressed first term -- labeling his jobs plan "believe in America" and his foreign policy approach "an American century."

The patriotic tones sound quite similar to Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign in 1984, which was convincing thanks to a booming economic recovery after twin recessions during his first presidential term. Obama can't boast of such booming growth, but would certainly like to claim credit for sustained economic improvement if the unemployment rate continues to fall this year.

Whether China comes to the forefront of the 2012 election or not, Americans' belief that China is hurting the U.S. economy looks to play a larger role in U.S. politics in the future.

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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.

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