America Divided: Political Partisanship and US Foreign Policy

September 15, 2015

By: Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy; Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs; Karl Friedhoff, Marshall M. Bouton Fellow for Asia Studies; Craig Kafura, Assistant Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

Executive Summary

The results of the 2015 Chicago Council Survey (PDF) demonstrate that the American public remains committed to engagement in the world—as it has been for the more than 40 years the Council has conducted its surveys. But on specific policies, public opinion often divides along party lines. At a fundamental level, these divergent views reflect differing interpretations of how the United States can most effectively advance its interests—whether through military or other means— in an increasingly volatile world.

Shared Concerns about US National Security

Americans again widely agree that the United States should be actively engaged abroad, with 64 percent of Americans saying the United States should play an active role in world affairs, an increase of six percentage points from last year. On this fundamental issue, Democrats and Republicans in the US public express similar views (Figure A). A majority of Independents agree, though a sizable minority (42%) thinks the United States should stay out of world affairs.

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The 2015 survey results also reveal that the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has had a marked impact on US public perceptions of the major threats to US security. American concern about Islamic fundamentalism has jumped 15 percentage points since the 2014 survey and is currently at the highest level since the 2002 survey—the first conducted after the attacks of September 11, 2001 (Figure B).

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Reflecting these heightened fears, Americans rate two related threats—a major terrorist attack in the United States by violent Islamic extremist groups and, more broadly, international terrorism— among the most critical threats facing the country. Furthermore, more than 60 percent of Americans agree that two other threats are also critical: cyberattacks on US computer networks and the rise of violent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Partisan Divisions Deepest on Immigration and Climate Change

Beyond these common perceptions of critical security threats, however, Republicans and Democrats disagree on a range of issues, with extremely stark differences on immigration and climate change.

Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats to say that “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States” represents a critical threat. Moreover, nearly half of Republicans believe that illegal immigrants should be required to leave their jobs and depart the country. By contrast, nearly 8 in 10 Democrats support a path to citizenship, one of the main components of immigration reform (Figure C)

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Climate change remains the most polarizing issue in American public opinion. Democrats see climate change as one of the top five critical threats facing the United States—with 56 percent believing it deserves immediate action. This issue is a much lower priority for Republicans, who do not see a need for immediate action and remain divided between those who believe climate change should be dealt with gradually and those who question whether it even exists (Figure D).

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Partisan Divisions on Politics Abroad: Iran Nuclear Deal, Creation of an Independent Palestinian State, and Regional Role of Israel

For much of the past year, the negotiations over a nuclear deal with Iran have been the top foreign policy story. While a majority of Americans consider Iran’s nuclear program a critical threat, opinions diverge on whether the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in July is the best way to address this threat. In polls conducted both before and after the agreement was signed, Democrats have consistently registered greater support than Republicans for the deal. And while majorities of Democrats and Republicans doubt the agreement will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to favor using cyberattacks and air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities if Iran violates the agreement. Only among Republicans does a majority support sending US troops to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities under such circumstances (Figure E).

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Republicans and Democrats also differ on support for establishing “an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” While supporters of both parties were once divided internally on this issue, now a majority of Democrats (61%) support an independent Palestinian state while 60 percent of Republicans are opposed. And though both Democrats and Republicans continue to express favorable views of Israel, Republicans’ feelings toward Israel have grown much warmer in recent years. Perhaps partly as a consequence of the lack of movement toward a two-state solution, only 4 in 10 Democrats see Israel’s role in the region as positive, compared to 6 in 10 Republicans (Figure F).

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Despite Broad Consensus, Republicans Favor Force

What explains these partisan differences? Though disagreement on the issues themselves is certainly a factor, the results of the 2015 Chicago Council Survey reveal a more fundamental difference is also at play: divergent views on how to address threats to US national security and achieve US foreign policy goals.

While both Democrats and Republicans value maintaining a military edge in the world, Republicans place relatively greater importance on forceful approaches to achieve US aims and protect US interests. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to prioritize maintaining US military superiority and to say this is an effective way of achieving US foreign policy goals (Figure G). In turn, Republicans are more likely to support the use of US troops abroad to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, to fight Islamic extremist groups, and to defend Israel if it comes under attack from its neighbors. They are also more likely than Democrats to favor keeping some US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 for training and counterterrorism and to favor the United States training Ukrainian military troops. And at home, Republicans’ emphasis on forceful methods translates into an immigration policy focused on law enforcement, border security, and deportation.

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Democrats, though supportive of the use of force in cases of a direct threat such as terrorism, are more likely than Republicans to favor diplomatic approaches such as working through the United Nations, signing free-trade agreements, and participating in international treaties. Reflecting this outlook, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to favor negotiated diplomatic solutions to address Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and climate change. As a prelude to these negotiations, Democrats favor meeting with leaders of hostile nations and groups, including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, and to a lesser extent Hamas and the Taliban—steps Republicans are much more likely to oppose. Democrats are also more likely than Republicans to favor the use of economic engagement, including lifting the trade embargo against Cuba and providing economic aid abroad.

Independents: Secret Partisans and the Politically Disconnected

Independents offer the weakest enthusiasm for the United States playing an active role internationally. Often assumed to be a swing vote in elections, research has shown that Independents who “lean” toward one of the parties often vote along partisan lines, while the remaining Independents who do not identify as leaning to one party or another (“pure” Independents) are far less likely than others to register to vote, turn out to vote, or show significant interest in the news.

The Chicago Council Survey shows that Independent “leaners” resemble partisans in their foreign policy views as well. They align more closely with Republicans in doubting the effectiveness of new alliances, economic aid, and free-trade agreements. Yet they more closely resemble Democrats when it comes to limiting the use of hard power—again, reflecting their disinclination to involve the United States in overseas conflicts. In fact, Independents are the least likely to say that a range of forceful and diplomatic options are effective to achieving US foreign policy goals.

Public Opinion on Foreign Policy and the 2016 Elections

Foreign policy issues are already playing a significant role in the campaigns for the presidential primaries. In the first Republican debate on August 6, foreign policy was the most-discussed topic, with immigration (treated as a subtopic of foreign policy in this report) tied for second.1 Yet few candidates have proposed specific policies to respond to these challenges. This ambiguity is probably not an oversight. At this early stage, candidates are focusing on broad appeals and widely shared concerns to maximize their appeal. Thus, the candidates are largely delivering similar messages on the issues most important to the American voter writ large: combating terrorism, fighting ISIS, and protecting the American economy.

Meanwhile, candidates are also seeking to articulate a vision that resonates with their base. This tradeoff is especially clear on issues that are distinct priorities for one party over another, such as immigration and climate change. For Republicans, the question of how to manage undocumented immigration has become one of the leading wedge issues in the campaign so far. Among Democratic leaders, there is a heated discussion of how quickly to transition from using fossil fuels to ramping up renewable sources of energy—and the Democratic electorate is similarly divided on whether action taken to limit climate change should be immediate or gradual.

The challenge for all presidential candidates—Republican and Democratic alike—is to balance an appeal to the base with an appeal to the median voter. That challenge is all the greater in 2015 given the deep divisions within the electorate on many of the top foreign policy issues facing America today.

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.


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