Behind the Numbers

Home Front

The presidency will be won or lost on the strength of the economy, but some surprising international issues may mix things up.

 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.

A slender nine percent of Americans say that President Barack Obama should focus on foreign policy, while 81 percent prefer a domestic focus, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Monday. It's the most lopsided result in 15 years of Pew polls, underscoring that no matter what financial troubles brew in Europe or how fractious the diplomatic skirmishes with Iran, Americans' first priority is dealing with problems on the home front.

It's no surprise, then, that Obama spent only six minutes of his hour-long State of the Union speech addressing foreign policy issues (See the Washington Post's neat graphic breaking down the speech by topic). In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week, about half of Americans volunteered jobs and the economy as the most important election issue in 2012; fewer than one in 20 named international issues. Two percent named terrorism and illegal immigration alike.

Not all foreign policy issues are seen as unimportant, however. Asked individually, nearly seven in ten (69 percent) in the Pew poll say terrorism is a "top priority" for Obama and Congress this year, though that's down 11 points in the past five years. Four in ten name illegal immigration, "strengthening the U.S. military," or global trade as key priorities for the president. Global warming ranks lowest on the list of 22 issues, with only one in four calling it a top priority.

Of course, unexpected international crises can rise to the forefront of political debates (see, Egypt and Libya, 2011). We noted last week that Iran may be just such a sleeper issue, as Americans are broadly concerned with the possibility that Tehran will acquire a nuclear weapon. Nearly three in ten Americans (28 percent) now say Iran represents the "greatest danger" to the United States in the new Pew poll, topping China (22 percent) -- and more than double the number who said this in 2011 (12 percent). So, overall it still may be the economy, stupid -- but individual issues do matter.

Gingrich, the diplomat?

Newt Gingrich is catching up to Mitt Romney in Florida according to a poll from Quinnipiac University released Wednesday, which also shows that Gingrich holds a two to one advantage among likely GOP voters on foreign affairs. Fully 53 percent of likely voters in next Tuesday's primary say Gingrich would do the best job on foreign policy, while 26 percent pick Romney. It's his biggest advantage over Romney across 11 issues and attributes tested in the survey, and a confirmation of strength for the former Speaker of the House that initially appeared in November polls.

That said, international issues appear to be on the back burner for many voters, with the economy dominating many debates. And in Florida, Romney holds a wide advantage over Gingrich in terms of which candidate voters prefer to handle the economy.

Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

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