Behind the Numbers

Radioactive Politics

Why President Obama might be in serious trouble when it comes to his handling of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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's most nagging challenge remains a persistently sluggish economy, but a new Washington Post-ABC News poll reveals a chink in his foreign-policy armor less than 11 months before he faces voters: Iran's nukes.

By a 48 to 33 percent margin, Americans disapprove of the way Obama has handled the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. His rating is markedly worse than for his performance on terrorism and international affairs as well as attitudes toward his overall job performance, where equal numbers approve and disapprove.

It's a classic sleeper issue. Less than 1 percent of Americans in the Washington Post-ABC poll named Iran as the single most important issue in their vote for president this year, and fewer than one in four in a Pew Research Center poll released last week said they were following the latest kerfuffle over the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of registered voters take Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons seriously (88 percent), according to a November poll from Quinnipiac University.

Will Iran emerge as a key factor this year? The economy and unemployment rate will almost certainly remain top issues throughout the campaign, but Obama's Republican challengers see an opening and have already drawn parallels between weakness in the U.S. economy and Obama's positioning with Iran. In a November debate, Mitt Romney called Iran "the gravest threat to America and the world" and said that Obama "did not do what was necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly."

The GOP candidates received additional ammunition to use against Obama from a November U.N. report showing Iran has "mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon." Obama's current standoff with Iran over the strategic Strait of Hormuz -- including his call for direct talks with Iran -- may also provide fodder for his challengers. But there's a risk of overreaching as well. Asked about the best approach to Iran, 65 percent of Americans chose "economic and diplomatic efforts" in a November CNN/ORC poll, compared with 16 percent supporting immediate military action; 17 percent preferred no action at all.

Republicans miffed by Paul's anti-interventionist rhetoric.

The boos Texas Rep. Ron Paul received in a South Carolina debate on Monday, Jan. 16, for proposing the "golden rule" approach to foreign policy are indicative of Republican reactions across the country. In the new Washington Post-ABC poll, nearly twice as many Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say Paul's opposition to military intervention overseas is a major reason to oppose him rather than to support him (49 percent vs. 25 percent), an even more negative reaction than in December.

Paul's anti-interventionist views do have an audience with some in the GOP electorate, however, as evidenced by the cheers Paul received after declaring, "This country doesn't need another war; we need to quit the ones we're in." While most rank-and-file Republicans disagree with Paul on these issues, more than one in three Republican-leaning independents say his opposition to foreign intervention is a major reason to support him. Even among this group, though, over four in 10 take the opposite view.

(The poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 12 to Jan. 15 among a random sample of 1,000 adults. The overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The sample of 414 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents has an error margin of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.)

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.

Chris Ratcliffe-Pool/Getty Images