April 7, 2016 | By

Foreign Policy in the 2016 Presidential Primaries Based on the Exit Polls

The opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are over. Super Tuesday and Junior Tuesday are in the books. Hillary Clinton is well on her way to securing her party’s nomination and Donald Trump has a stranglehold in the GOP contest. Now is a good time to pause and take stock of where we are in the 2016 presidential primaries on a topic that generally doesn’t get as much attention in presidential contests—foreign policy.
Exit polls—coordinated by the National Election Pool, a group of media organizations including ABC News, the Associated Press, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and NBC News—provide some insight. While most polls are conducted by phone or online, exit poll interviewers literally catch people as the leave polling places and ask them to fill out a short paper and pencil survey asking them how and why they voted the way they did. (The approach differs somewhat for states that run caucuses, in which case “entrance” polls are conducted as people enter their caucus locations.) I serve as ABC’s representative on the NEP’s Survey Committee, working with reps from the other member organizations to craft the questions included in each state’s questionnaires.
Exit polls include broad questions that apply to all candidates, and more specific questions based on issues important to each party. For example, voters are asked which is the most important issue facing the country, of which terrorism is one of the choices. Post-Brussels, the issue takes on added significance in the presidential primaries. Questions have also tapped into voters’ views on immigration and trade, both important topics of debate on both sides.
There has been far more foreign policy debate among the Republican candidates, where terrorism, immigration, Islam, refugees, and trade have been at the forefront, and exit polls have measured attitudes on these issues. In the Democratic race, domestic issues like health care and income inequality have been more prominent.
As we enter the stretch run of the 2016 primaries and head toward the conventions, it is perhaps too much to say that Clinton and Trump are dominating their respective contests because of their foreign policy experience (in Clinton’s case) or policy proposals (in Trump’s case), but they at least have not hurt them. In Trump’s case, it appears to be a big part of his appeal.
I examine exit poll results on each party’s race in turn below, looking at foreign policy-relevant questions on each side.

The Republican Primaries

Given greater attention to foreign policy issues in the GOP debates, the exit polls have included more questions on foreign policy asked for GOP primary voters, and therefore there is more data to break down on the GOP side of the ledger.


Among GOP primary voters this year, terrorism has typically ranked third out of four issues in terms importance, behind the economy/jobs and government spending, but far ahead of immigration. Across the twenty states with exit polls so far, roughly a quarter of Republican primary voters have said it is the most important issue facing the country, peaking at 32 percent in South Carolina and 31 percent in Massachusetts, and bottoming out at just 16 percent in Illinois and 19 percent in Nevada and Virginia alike.
Among GOP primary voters, it is Donald Trump who has been leading the pack for the most part. On average, he has won nearly four in 10 “terrorism voters,” followed by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich. Trump’s won terrorism voters in 11 of the 21 states with exit polls, only losing them to Cruz in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas, and Iowa; Kasich in Ohio; and Rubio in Virginia. (Trump and another candidate were virtually tied on it in the remaining states, so he’s only lost outright in five states.)

Banning Muslims

One of Trump’s most controversial proposals is to ban Muslims who are not American citizens from entering the country. It is a proposal that has been widely rejected in polls among the general public, but it has been getting a surprisingly high level of support among GOP primary voters so far. On average, about two-thirds of GOP primary voters have said they support banning Muslims, with only about one-quarter opposed.
Support peaked at 76 percent in Mississippi and hit its low of 63 percent in Michigan and Virginia. That means opinion on the topic among GOP voters has been remarkably consistent across a diverse range of states, including New Hampshire, Florida, Vermont, Ohio, and Texas.
Not surprisingly, the primary beneficiary of support for this policy is the man who proposed it. Trump has won nearly half of voters who favor banning Muslims, with Cruz in second and Rubio and Kasich at some distance.


Another of Trump’s signature issues is a plan to deport all undocumented immigrants (though he has had company from Cruz and Rubio on the far right in this policy domain). The idea has not been nearly as popular among GOP primary voters this year as his plan to ban non-US Muslims from entering the country. On average, a majority of Republican primary voters say they want undocumented immigrants to have a path to legal status. About four in 10 say they should be deported.
Among those who favor deportation, Trump has taken in about half of their votes to date, a substantial feat given the number of candidates who have been along for the ride on the GOP side. His only competition among these voters is Cruz, who has won about three in 10 “deportation voters.” Trump won deportation voters in all the states where the question has been asked, save Texas and Oklahoma, where he lost those voters and the state overall to Cruz.
There is a reason the exit poll has only asked this question of Republican primary voters and that immigration was only included on the issue importance question on the GOP side—it is a much bigger issue for Republican voters. Indeed, in the Council’s 2015 survey, 63 percent of Republicans said large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US was a critical threat to US interests versus just 29 percent of Democrats. And while two-thirds of Republicans in the survey thought controlling and reducing illegal immigration was a very important goal, only 36 percent of Democrats felt the same. Support for deportation specifically, was also much higher among Republicans than Democrats (45 vs. 14 percent).
In Texas, the exit poll had a question on support for Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the entire US border with Mexico, and two-thirds of GOP primary voters in the state favored the idea, while only one-quarter opposed it. It is another Trump policy that is resonating with a large segment of GOP primary voters. However, this was Texas, Cruz’s home state and his most dominant performance to date, so he won voters who favor a wall, as he did deportation voters and those who want to ban Muslims, both groups where elsewhere Trump has generally dominated.
Who’s doing well among GOP primary voters who prefer a path to legal status? Here, it is a close three-way race between Trump, Cruz and Kasich. Kasich took them in Ohio; Rubio in Arkansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Oklahoma; Cruz in Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, and Missouri; Trump in Mississippi, with the other states within the margin of error.
Trump’s also been romping among voters who say immigration is their top issue, among whom he has won a majority of their votes, with Cruz far behind. That said, as mentioned above, only one in 10 say it is their top issue, a distant fourth among four issues.


In the most recent states, the exit poll has included a question on the effects of trade on jobs in the country, and on this topic, there is a great deal of agreement among Democratic and Republican primary voters. A majority of Republican voters (as well as a plurality of Democratic voters) think that trade takes away US jobs, while many fewer say it creates US jobs.
Again, this has been a major point that Trump’s been making on the campaign trail—the US loses out to countries like China in business in general, including on jobs. And he has scooped up nearly half of these anti-trade voters, winning them by large margins in Michigan, Mississippi, Illinois, and North Carolina, while essentially tying with Kasich in Ohio. Among the third of GOP voters who think trade creates more US jobs than it cuts, voters have generally split between Kasich, Trump, and Cruz.

The Democratic Primaries

As mentioned, the Democratic candidates have focused more on domestic policy issues than GOP candidates, leaving less to talk about regarding foreign policy views among Democratic primary voters. From the questions that have been asked though, Clinton’s done well among voters in a policy arena where her experience clearly outpaces that of her opponent.


As has been true in national polls of Americans overall, the exit polls have found that terrorism is not nearly as important an issue for Democratic primary voters as it is for their counterparts who have voted in GOP primaries. The issues list used on the Democratic primary questionnaires are somewhat different from those used on the GOP side. Here, two items are the same—the economy/jobs and terrorism—while two items are different—income inequality and health care (as opposed to government spending and immigration). Terrorism has been named as the top issue on average by one in ten voters, far behind the economy/jobs, income inequality, and health care.
The fact that Republican primary voters have prioritized terrorism more so than Democratic primary voters fits with the Chicago Council’s own 2015 data where 75 percent of Republicans saw terrorism as a critical threat to the vital interests of the country and 72 percent thought fighting terrorism was a very important goal, versus 68 and 64 percent, respectively, among Democrats. More Republicans, 80 percent, thought the possibility of violent Islamic extremist groups carrying out a major terrorist attack in the United States was a critical threat, ten percentage points higher than Democrats. Not only was there greater perceived threat among Republicans than Democrats, they also felt the government was much less prepared to deal with them.
Among Democratic primary voters, Hillary Clinton enjoys a distinct advantage over Bernie Sanders among “terrorism voters,” who have voted for her by about a 2-1 margin. She has won terrorism voters over Sanders in every state so far this year, save New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Vermont, with her vote margin topping out at a whopping 70 percentage points in Texas and averaging about 40 points across all states.
Even in her loss in Wisconsin, where Sanders turned the tables on Clinton and beat her among voters most concerned about the economy/jobs and health care (two groups in which Clinton’s dominated), she still managed to win among those most concerned about terrorism.
It is important to note that given its lower level of importance, it is not the main reason for her dominance to date. She enjoys similar voting margins vs. Sanders among those who said the economy/jobs is most important, as well as those who chose health care. (The only issue on which she has tended to lose so far is on income inequality, Sanders’ signature issue.)


Similar to their counterparts on the GOP side, nearly half of Democratic voters think international trade takes away more US jobs than it creates. Clinton’s pro-trade policies have not hurt her too much. Among voters who think trade hurts American jobs, she has split the vote with Sanders, while winning among the nearly four in 10 voters who think trade helps US jobs.
In recent states where Sanders has either challenged or beaten Clinton—Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin—majorities of voters who thought trade takes away more US jobs than it creates have gone Sanders’ way. By contrast, in Mississippi and North Carolina, and very importantly, even in Ohio, majorities of these voters went Clinton’s way.


Though other GOP candidates have tried to match Trump’s stark foreign policy positions—most notably Cruz—no other candidate has been able to gain so much traction among hard line issue voters on terrorism, immigration and security. In the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, it is unlikely Trump’s approach to foreign policy will diminish among GOP voters. He’s widely preferred among terrorism and immigration voters alike, and there’s broad support for his proposal to ban Muslims.
The only soft underbelly seems to be the lower level of support for Trump’s (and Cruz’s) proposal to deport undocumented immigrants, perhaps an opening for John Kasich’s more moderate positions on the issue.
Thinking ahead to November, deporting undocumented immigrants and banning non-US Muslims do not play very well in the general US audience. Majorities of Americans overall reject these policies. But the general election is still a ways away, and it is these positions that have helped him solidify his lead among Republican primary voters. Trump’s already indicated that he’s willing to moderate his positions on these issues should he move on to the main contest.
As mentioned, Clinton’s foreign policy experience has given her a built-in advantage over Sanders, but the Democratic race has focused a lot more on domestic policy than has the GOP contest so it is unclear how much this has helped her overall lead. But on foreign policy, she dominates. She’s by far more preferred among voters for whom terrorism is the most important issue. And she has not been as damaged as might be expected among Democratic primary voters by her more pro-trade views. In the few states where it has been asked, she is also widely seen as more worthy of the label “commander-in-chief” (save Wisconsin, where Sanders won a lopsided victory and voters split about evenly between the two on this question).
Despite Tuesday’s underdog wins for Cruz and Sanders in Wisconsin, so far, it has been Trump and Clinton leading their primaries and dominating the foreign policy debate in their respective parties. If each does manage to secure their respective nominations they will provide an incredibly stark contrast in foreign policy outlooks for voters to consider in the general election.
Gregory Holyk is senior research analyst at Langer Research Associates and a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


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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