Behind the Numbers

Politics at the Pump

Why do domestic politicians pay the price for a global problem?

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog

Gas price spikes at home have the potential to focus American voters on global issues like limited oil supply, potential conflicts in the Middle East, and economic growth in China and India. Indeed, economists point to all three of these as key factors in gas prices.

But foreign policy has taken a backseat in the debate over gas prices, which continue to flirt near $4 a gallon, and polls show Americans blame domestic culprits just as much as global factors for higher pump prices.

Part of the domestic focus can be chalked up to the belief that the federal government is capable of solving the problem: 50 percent of Americans in a March Washington Post-ABC News poll said the Obama administration can "reasonably" do something to reduce gas prices, and 54 percent in a CBS News/New York Times poll said Obama "can do a lot about" gas prices.

From the street level, the way Americans experience gas price hikes doesn't lend itself to an international outlook. Drivers fill up at their local station, wince as they swipe their cards or dig deeper into their wallet to pay the cashiers, and drive away with less money. No part of that experience reminds drivers of an unstable Middle East, global oil markets, or the world's limited petroleum supply.

Political gamesmanship also may feed the idea that Washington can temper the ups and downs of gas prices. Public opinion isn't formed in a vacuum, and voters may be taking cues from their leaders that government is responsible for gyrations at the pump. Republicans have attacked Obama for high gas prices this year, just as President George W. Bush took heat when he was in office. Obama's presidential campaign has taken aim at likely challenger Mitt Romney, accusing him of supporting tax breaks for big oil companies. Polls show plenty of evidence of partisan assessments: Two-thirds of Republicans in the March Post-ABC poll said the Obama administration is capable of reducing gas prices, a view shared by just one-third of Democrats. Those positions were flipped when George W. Bush, a Republican, was in power.

Complexity of the issue is yet another factor. While a violent conflict in an oil-producing nation is sometimes an obvious cause of a gas price increase, the causes are much less clear on other occasions, like this year. One in four Americans in a February Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll did not name anyone as the main culprit for the recent rise in gas prices.

Despite the focus on domestic bogeymen, some of the public is connecting the dots between rising prices and international demand or conflict. More than eight in 10 Americans in a recent CNN/ORC poll said foreign oil-producing countries deserve at least some blame for increases in gas prices. In the Post-Pew poll, just over one in 10 Americans named Iran, Middle East unrest, and the threat of war together as the No. 1 culprit for rising gas prices, ranking third in an open-ended survey question. Some respondents also named China, India, or global demand.

And as long as the public debate and public opinion are focused domestic causes to heightened gas prices, few will look for foreign policy remedies.

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Behind the Numbers

Romney’s Hill to Climb

If Romney thinks he can beat Obama on foreign policy, he's going to have to do a whole lot more than just criticize the president.

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog

Mitt Romney plans to challenge President Barack Obama broadly on foreign policy this year, and will likely deliver a major address on the topic in April or May. If he is to convince voters that he would be better than Obama on the world stage, he has a steep hill to climb.

Americans trust Obama over Romney on international affairs by a 53 to 36 percent margin, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. Foreign policy is one of Obama's strongest advantages among 18 issues and attributes tested in the poll.


Not to say that Romney doesn't have his strengths -- they're just far from the foreign policy arena. Handling the federal budget deficit stood out as Romney's greatest strength in the poll: he led Obama by 51 to 38 percent on trust to handle the issue. He also fared well on handling the economy overall and energy policy.

Interestingly, however, Romney's weakness on foreign policy doesn't appear to result from Obama's strengths. Americans give Obama middling ratings on international affairs overall: 47 percent approve while 44 percent disapprove. Obama's marks on terrorism are better, but far from the stratospheric levels he received after Osama bin Laden's killing.

That might be good news in Romney's camp, but even among Republicans, Romney has struggled to win trust over his competitors. Twice as many Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in a February CNN/ORC poll trusted Newt Gingrich to handle foreign policy as trusted Romney, even as Gingrich's overall support was plummeting nationally.

On one topic -- Iran -- Romney has found some traction. He has sharply criticized Obama on Iran policy, an area where the president is clearly vulnerable. Americans disapproved of Obama's handling of Iran's nuclear potential by a 52 to 36 percent margin in a March Washington Post-ABC News poll, with twice as many strong detractors as supporters.

But it's not clear whether Romney is landing clean punches. In February, 49 percent of voters in a Fox News poll were at least "somewhat confident" that Obama could stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons; 44 percent said the same of Romney. And Romney's more confrontational approach may not ring as true to voters in the general election as it did in the Republican primary. Most Americans in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month preferred diplomacy over pre-emptive military action.

Afghanistan may be an even rockier issue, as public support for continuing the mission is on the wane. Obama plans to withdraw troops in 2014, but support for the war effort overall has fallen since last year, with fewer Americans seeing the effort as worth the costs.

More than half of the public -- 54 percent -- say the United States should withdraw military forces even if the Afghan army is not adequately trained, according to a March Washington Post-ABC News poll. In a recent CNN/ORC poll, 55 percent said the U.S. should remove all troops before 2014, while just 22 percent wanted them to stay beyond that year.

Romney has yet to capitalize on these weaknesses, and his upcoming speech may represent a major attempt to do so. But he may need to go beyond merely criticizing Obama to convince voters that he'll be a steadier hand on the international stage.

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