November 10, 2016 | By Dina Smeltz, Craig Kafura

US Opinion Leaders Tend to Respond to Vocal Minorities among the Public

Under the aegis of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Texas National Security Network, we have just concluded a survey of nearly 500 leaders working for U.S. institutions with expertise on U.S. foreign policy. They are drawn from the Executive Branch, Congress, think tanks, academia, media, business, labor unions, religious organizations, and interest groups.

These foreign policy leaders strongly support international engagement but substantially underestimate public support for international engagement, globalization, and immigration. Foreign policy leaders respond to an outspoken and passionate segment of the US public and mistakenly believe they are representative of wider public opinion.

At least nine in ten leaders across partisan lines support the United States taking an active part in world affairs (99% of Democrats, 93% of Republicans, and 91% of Independents). Yet when asked to speculate what proportion of the American public felt the same way, the leaders’ average estimate for public support was well below reality. Leaders from partisan groups all distinctly underestimated public support: as shown in the 2016 Chicago Council Survey, nearly two in three Americans support taking an active part in world affairs. Yet Republican, Democratic, and Independent opinion leaders' estimates of public support are between fifteen and twenty points lower than reality. 

The survey found an even larger division between public opinion and leaders' perceptions on globalization. While overwhelming majorities of opinion leaders agree that globalization is mostly good for the United States (93% of Democrats, 91% of Republicans, and 84% of Independents), they do not think the public shares that view. Estimates range from one in five--among Republican leaders--to one in three--among Independent leaders. But all of these are drastic underestimates: in reality, two in three Americans (65%) say that globalization is mostly good for the US.

These findings among the public are also not a recent development. Over the past several decades, the American public has consistently supported a policy of international engagement and globalization. In the 2016 Chicago Council Survey released earlier this fall, majorities across party lines said the US should play an active role in world affairs (70% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans, and 57% of Independents), though only half among Donald Trump's core supporters (those who preferred Trump above all other Presidential candidates in the primary). Cross-partisan majorities also say that globalization is mostly good (74% of Democrats, 59% of Republicans, and 61% of Independents), with core Trump supporters divided (49% mostly good).

On other foreign policy issues, such as support for the US commitment to NATO, maintaining superior US military power, and continuing bases overseas are shared across party lines and run counter to Donald Trump’s criticisms of U.S. allies. In short, foreign policy leaders strongly support international engagement but mistake loud voices for broader public opinion. 

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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