Poll: American Public and "The Blob" Generally Agree on Foreign Policy

April 20, 2017

April 20, 2017 – As President Donald Trump shifts positions on key foreign policy stances, a new report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows the American public is more attuned to the broad outlines of policy positions promoted by foreign policy opinion leaders than the views President Trump espoused during the 2016 campaign.

The report is based on data from a comparison of the 2016 Chicago Council Survey of the U.S. public and the 2016 Chicago Council Leadership Survey, conducted in partnership with the Texas National Security Network, completed by more than 400 professionals working on foreign policy issues. Both surveys were conducted before the November election.

The 2016 election has been widely read as a populist revolt, with average Americans rising up to reject the political elite, particularly on issues of immigration and trade. As the Council’s survey results show, there is an element of truth in this argument: the American public and opinion leaders are in fact divided over several key issues.

“There are some clear differences between average Americans and the political elite on the threat posed by immigration, the impact of trade on job creation and the importance of defending allies as a foreign policy goal," said Dina Smeltz, senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Council and lead author on the report. "But there is a general consensus between foreign policy experts and the American public on the importance of continued U.S. engagement in the world, the value of alliances and the importance of countering major security threats.”

In addition, although candidate Trump repeatedly pitched the downsides of trade agreements, U.S. immigration policy and American allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East for being free riders, the public and leadership are generally aligned on foreign policy questions about the importance of international engagement by the U.S. The findings also suggest that both opinion leaders and the public acknowledge that the United States needs allies and trading partners to succeed. They disagreed, however, on foreign policy issues related to trade’s specific impact on job creation and the threat posed by immigration.

Yet while there are differences between the expert consensus and typical Americans on these points, as well as evidence of partisan divisions, there is no evidence of a hard turn toward isolationism.

For the full report, including detailed data and graphics, please click here.

About the Chicago Council Leader Survey
This report is based on a leadership survey conducted August 25 to October 25, 2016 among 484 foreign policy opinion leaders from executive branch agencies, Congress, academia, think tanks, the media, interest groups and NGOs, religious institutions, labor unions and business. While the survey team worked hard to design a sample that would reflect broad networks of policy leaders on both sides of the aisle, as in previous Chicago Council leader surveys, the final sample included a disproportionate number of Democrats (50 percent Democrat, 17 percent Republican, 33 percent Independent). For this reason, the leader results are shown by partisan affiliation and not as an overall leader average.

To more closely reflect the composition of previous Chicago Council Survey leaders surveys, these data were weighted by target sample group to reflect the proportional representation of leader groupings within previous leader samples. As was true in the 2014 Chicago Council leadership survey, low response rates from business, labor and religious leaders required heavily overweighting them. Therefore, individuals using these data for their own research purposes should use caution in interpreting the results from these small subgroups on their own.

In addition, while this leader survey should not be interpreted to reflect the views of elected officials, the respondents are influential members of their organizations, and many who are currently outside government service have held positions in government in the past. While this survey’s sample was carefully and thoughtfully constructed to sample the full range of foreign policy opinion leaders, it cannot be directly compared to a scientifically executed public opinion sample (such as the 2016 Chicago Council Survey) in terms of margin of error or other familiar survey statistics. Despite these limitations, the Council on Global Affairs is confident the results will shed light on the views of opinion leaders and improve the dialogue around U.S. foreign policy and policymaking.

2016 Chicago Council Public Opinion Survey
The 2016 edition of the survey is the latest effort in a series of wide-ranging surveys on American attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy. The 2016 Chicago Council Survey was made possible by the generous support of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown Family.

The survey was conducted from June 10 to 27, 2016, among a representative national sample of 2,061 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is ±2.38, including a design effect of 1.2149. The margin of error is higher for partisan subgroups.

Partisan identification is based on respondents’ answer to a standard partisan self-identification question: “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, or what?”

The survey was commissioned by the Council on Global Affairs and conducted by GfK Custom Research, a polling, social science and market research firm in Palo Alto, California using a randomly selected sample of GfK’s large-scale nationwide research panel, KnowledgePanel® (KP). The survey was fielded to a total of 3,580 panel members yielding a total of 2,244 completed surveys (a completion rate of 63 percent). The median survey length was 20 minutes. Of the 2,244 total completed surveys, 183 cases were excluded for quality control reasons, leaving a final sample size of 2,061 respondents.

A full listing of questions asked in the 2016 Chicago Council Survey, including details on which questions were administered to split samples, is available online at www.thechicagocouncil.org