What really matters to voters is that when they feel threatened, they want their president to strike back. On terrorism. On the Iran deal. On China.
When they don’t feel threatened on, say, climate change, they don’t really care.
And that’s why Donald Trump has a better shot of winning the Republican nomination than any other candidate—or at least winning the foreign policy vote, if such a thing exists—if one looks closely at a new poll released Wednesday.
Trump wants to fight.
Americans are a fickle bunch in some areas. But when it comes to foreign policy there are some constants, some predictable leanings with political winds, and some truisms. Mostly, it turns out American opinions on foreign policy issues tend to be sensible and reasonable. And yet, what they appear to like most is exactly the kind of fiery rhetoric being spewed most loudly by one candidate: Trump.
And it’s not a fluke. It’s how America feels.
“I’ve been really struck…how pragmatic and logical and consistent American public opinion is on these issues,” said pollster Dina Smeltz, senior fellow the Chicago Council, who has studied such opinions for years. Hours before Trump took center stage on Wednesday’s presidential debate, the second of the 2016 GOP field, Smetlz presented the results of a new survey conducted this summer to measure American foreign policy opinions. “It’s not volatile. It does make sense. It sometimes responds to events, but it all makes sense.”
And it’s not that far off from the “elites” of foreign policy community, when polled. “Their opinions were really not that much different than the public,” she said.
When threatened, Americans want to fight back. In fact, Smeltz said, Americans have a “catalogue” of cases when they support military intervention.
“If Americans sense a direct threat—terrorism is one, for Republicans; Iran’s nuclear program is one—then they will support an intervention. But if it’s something that’s considered not a direct threat to the United States—like the war in Syria, like Ukraine—then they don’t want to get involved,” she said. “Also, if a formidable military power like China or Russia would be the antagonist, Americans also don’t want to get involved because it would be significant cost. So if it’s something that can be dealt with with air strikes or assassinations, Americans will support it.”
Catch that? If Americans sense a threat. It doesn’t matter how actual the threat is. It’s the perception of the thing. So, if a politician were to speak loudly enough about, oh, say, China, or the Iran deal or melting polar ice caps, the perception may be enough to rile the voters to want a military intervention.
It’s been a tumultuous year. The U.S. is back at war in Iraq and the Islamic State campaign shows no end. As Syrian refugees wash ashore in Europe, the Pentagon’s defense intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart said last week he’s not sure Iraq and Syria will ever exist again . CIA Director John Brennan said it may take 20 years before Middle Eastern peoples ever trust and rebuild their governments and again. Americans were beheaded on video for all the world to see, Russia moved forces into Syria and is still fighting in Ukraine, and China is building islands the Pacific’s top U.S. commander says are forward operating bases to fight a regional war.
“It explains a lot of the tougher than tough rhetoric you’re hearing,” said Politico Editor Susan Glasser.
Everywhere one looks critics list the threats facing Americans and accuse the Obama administration of doing too little, too late to prevent conflicts and protect the country. When those things happen, people don’t want to retreat.
Only one candidate is talking with fire. Trump.
Among Americans, the survey found 64 percent of respondents want the U.S. to “take an active part of world affairs,” a number that rose six points since last year. Gone is the post-Iraq War weariness to focus on the homefront. It’s no surprise—the number of people who call Islamic fundamentalism a threat rose from 48 to 65 percent among Republicans and from 38 to 56 percent among Democrats.
But that’s about where the commonalities stop. The question of when the U.S. should flex its muscle continues to divide Republicans and Democrats.
Take climate change, Smeltz noted. Democrats ranked climate change as the No. 5 threat. “They think it’s an immediate issue,” she said. Republicans ranked it as No. 20, dead last among the options given. But Republicans are divided. There are those who believe climate change is real and even a threat. They just don’t agree it needs an immediate (or government expanding) solution. The perception differs.
The other area where Republicans and Democrats divide: immigration. According to the survey 63 percent of Republicans—but just 29 percent of Democrats—consider “immigrants and refugees” crossing the border to be “critical threats.” This historical trend however, shows it’s not that Republicans are getting more scared of the threat. It’s that Democrats are getting less so.
The other gap between parties is the Iran deal, which returned a 16 point spread between Republicans over Democrats who consider it a threat. But explain away the threat and people soften. In recent polls, Smeltz said, the deal loses 45 to 44 if you just ask people if they support it. But if you explain in the question what’s in the Iran deal, the deal wins, 51 to 41 percent.
Across the board, Republicans want the U.S. to be the “dominant world leader” by nearly double the percentage of Democrats—and more so for the issues they feel most concerned.
It’s a sure bet you’ll hear Trump and the GOP field in Wednesday’s debate mention ISIS, China and paint Obama as weak on all of it. Climate change? Not so much.
“Will it matter on Election Day? I would just point back to the 2004 election,” said Politico ’s Michael Crowley, senior foreign policy correspondent, at Wednesday’s panel. Then-Sen. John Kerry, Mass., the Democratic nominee, wasn’t able to derail President George W. Bush as the Iraq War was collapsing into chaos. Days before the election, Osama bin Laden released a new tape that Kerry’s staff felt may have helped swing the razor-thin margin in Ohio that won the election for Bush. “I think voters at the end of the day felt, if nothing, Bush will keep us safe.”
One year from November, barring economic collapse, more beheadings, and whatever national security threats the world will throw at the voters, Crowley said, “I don’t discount the possibility that it will make a difference.”