September 15, 2015 | By Dina Smeltz, Craig Kafura

America Divided: Political Partisanship and US Foreign Policy

Yesterday, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released America Divided: Political Partisanship and US Foreign Policy, one of several reports on the 2015 Chicago Council Survey. Below are a selection of key findings from the report, which you can find in full at Be sure to follow @ChicagoCouncil@IvoHDaalder, @RoguePollster, @KarlFriedhoff, and @CKafura for continuing discussion of the 2015 Survey results using the hashtag #2015CCS.


By Dina Smeltz, Craig Kafura, and Riena Yu

With the world seemingly lurching from one crisis to the next, foreign policy is bound to be a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. The results of the 2015 Chicago Council Survey demonstrate that the American public remains committed to US engagement in the world, with 64 percent of Americans saying the United States should play an active role in world affairs, up from 58 percent in 2014. Republicans (69%), Democrats (67%), and Independents (57%) in the US public agree on this issue. 

The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has led to heightened fears among the public. Concern about Islamic fundamentalism (55%) is at the highest level since the 2002 survey, with an increase of 15 percentage points since the 2014 survey. Americans also consider a major terrorist attack in the United States by violent Islamic extremist groups, international terrorism and the rise of violent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria to be among the most critical threats facing the US.

 Threat of Islamic Fundamentalism

Although the American public has common perceptions of critical security threats, there are many issues that divide Republicans and Democrats.  Climate change and immigration are the most polarizing foreign policy issues asked about in the 2015 Survey. Republicans (63%) are twice as likely as Democrats (29%) to say that large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States are a critical threat. In that vein, nearly half (45%) of Republicans believe that illegal immigrants should be required to leave their jobs and the country. In contrast, a large majority of Democrats (77%) support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. 

Democrats name climate change as one of the top five critical threats facing the United States, and a majority now favor immediate steps to limit its effects. Republicans, on the other hand, rate climate change as the least critical threat among the 20 presented in the survey, and remain divided over whether to deal with climate change gradually (43%) or whether it is really a problem (44%).

 Climate Change Policy

There are also partisan divisions on politics abroad, over issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, the creation of an independent Palestinian state, and the role of Israel in the Middle East. Although a majority (57%) of Americans consider Iran’s nuclear program a critical threat, in survey conducted both before and after the deal was finalized show that Democrats are much more supportive of the deal than are Republicans.

While both Republicans and Democrats express favorable views of Israel, they have different views on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  A majority of Democrats now favor an independent Palestinian state (61% in favor) while only 29 percent of Republicans agree. 

 Support for a Palestinian State

The 2015 Survey reveals that partisan variances on these specific issues may reflect overarching differences on the best way to address US national security. Republicans place relatively greater importance on forceful approaches such as maintaining US military superiority, using US troops to enforce a nuclear deal with Iran, to fight Islamic extremist groups, and to defend Israel if it comes under attack from its neighbors. While Democrats also value military strength and the use of force against terrorism, they are much more likely than Republicans to favor diplomatic approaches, support working through the United Nations, and negotiated diplomatic solutions to address Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and climate change.

Support for Defending Israel

Foreign policy issues have already begun to play a significant role in the campaigns for the presidential primaries. The deep divisions within the electorate on the top foreign policy issues will prove to be a challenge for both Republican and Democratic candidates, as they attempt to balance an appeal to the base with an appeal to the median voter.

About the Chicago Council Survey

The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2015 Chicago Council Survey of the American public on foreign policy. The 2015 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, probability-based nationwide online research KnowledgePanel between May 25 and June 17, 2015 among a national sample of 2,034 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error ranges from ± 2.2 to ± 3.1 percentage points depending on the specific question, with higher margins of error for partisan subgroups. 

The 2015 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the United States-Japan Foundation and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown family. 


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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