February 13, 2020 | By Jack Benjamin

Do Non-Trump Republicans Diverge with Trump Republicans on Foreign Policy?

Despite being impeached by the House in December, President Donald Trump’s approval ratings remain steady as they have throughout his entire presidency. Much of this stability is driven by a consistently high approval rating among Republicans. A minority subset of self-identified Republicans, however, is not as supportive as other Republicans. In the Chicago Council’s most recent January 2020 survey, out of 458 Republican-identifying or Republican-leaning respondents, 20 percent say that President Trump is not their first choice for President in the upcoming general election, similar to the proportion of non-Trump leaning Republicans in 2019 Chicago Council Survey (21%). Notably, this is a near complete reversal from our 2016 survey, wherein 69 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning respondents said that Trump was not their first choice for President. Such a change underscores how Trump has consolidated support from his party over the course of his tenure. But how do Non-Trump Republicans and Trump Republicans[1] compare on foreign policy issues?

In the January 2020 Chicago Council Survey, both Trump Republicans and Non-Trump Republicans broadly agreed on most key threat assessments of critical threats facing the United States. However, Non-Trump Republicans were significantly more concerned than Trump Republicans about Russian influence in American elections (43% critical threat vs. 14% for Trump Republicans) and climate change (51% critical threat vs. 13% for Trump Republicans). 

Trump Republicans (72%) are also more likely than Non-Trump Republicans (57%) to see Iran’s nuclear program as a critical threat, and a majority of Trump Republicans see Iran’s influence in the Middle East (61%) as a critical threat, as opposed to a minority of Non-Trump Republicans (48%). In fact, Non-Trump Republicans differ from Trump Republicans on several policies regarding Iran. Whereas two-thirds of Trump Republicans (66%) say the January assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani makes the US safer, just a quarter (26%) of Non-Trump Republicans agree. Further, if Iran restarts development toward a nuclear weapon, Non-Trump Republicans are much more likely to support rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement (72% vs. 45% Trump Republicans), and less likely to support conducting airstrikes (56% vs. 81% Trump Republicans) and sending US troops (41% vs. 57% Trump Republicans) to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Meanwhile, in the Chicago Council’s 2019 annual survey conducted last June, Trump Republicans were much more concerned with the threat of large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US (89% critical threat) than Non-Trump Republicans (43% critical threat). Non-Trump Republicans were also less likely than Trump Republicans to believe separating children from their parents when they are accused of entering the U.S. illegally across the southern border is an effective policy measure (18% Non-Trump Republicans vs. 47% Trump Republicans). However, the two groups were in broad consensus on the efficacy of other approaches to dealing with illegal immigration, such as increasing border security (96% Trump Republicans vs. 84% Non-Trump Republicans), carrying out more arrests and deportations (88% Trump Republicans vs. 65% Non-Trump Republicans), and imposing fines on businesses that hire illegal immigrants (86% Trump Republicans vs. 72% Non-Trump Republicans). For what it’s worth, with the exception of carrying out more arrests and deportations, Democrats also generally agree on these specific policy measures despite being in a different world on immigration overall.

Trump Republicans and Non-Trump Republicans also share a lot of the same policy preferences regarding hawkish military strategies. Both groups in the Council’s 2019 annual survey say that maintaining US military superiority, alliances with other countries, conducting drone strikes against suspected terrorists, and stationing US troops in allied countries abroad all make the United States safer. On the other hand, there are discrepancies between the two groups on the efficacy of diplomatic strategies and multilateralism. Non-Trump Republicans are more likely than Trump Republicans to say that promoting democracy and human rights around the world, signing free trade agreements, participation in international organizations, and providing humanitarian aid to other countries makes the United States safer.

As the 2020 election primaries heat up, both Democrat and Republican strategists will likely seek to sway Non-Trump Republicans toward their side. On foreign policy, Democrats may appeal to common ground on climate, Iran, diplomacy, and multilateralism. Meanwhile, Republicans may emphasize commonality on hawkish military strategies and immigration policies. Though conventional wisdom says that elections are not won on foreign policy, Trump’s overall unpopular overseas agenda could nevertheless be a boon to Democrats as they try to court fence-sitters.


[1] Trump Republicans and Non-Trump Republicans were distinguished in our surveys by differentiating between respondents who denoted that they were Republican or Republican-leaning and that Trump was their first-choice candidate for the 2020 Presidential election and those who identified as Republican but said a candidate other than Trump was their first-choice candidate.

The margin of sampling error for the full January 2020 sample is ±3, but the margin of error is higher for partisan subgroups. For Trump Republicans, the margin of error at a 95% confidence interval is ±5.1, while for Non-Trump Republicans, the margin of error is ±10.2. For the annual 2019 survey, the overall margin of sampling error is ±2.3. For Trump Republicans, the margin of error is ±4.1, and for Non-Trump Republicans the margin of error is ±8.1.

About

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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