Memo|National Security   8 Minute Read

The Politics of National Security: Debate Edition

Published October 22, 2012

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A review of recent public polling confirms the main findings of our 2012 focus groups:1 this election features a Democratic President with some of his strongest ratings in national security. This is extraordinary after four decades of Republican dominance on security issues. But the recent data also confirm that one successful presidential term is not enough to significantly erode preconceived voter notions about the two parties on these issues.

Set forth below are the most pertinent findings of the recent publicly available polling data on national security issues. We offer results for Registered Voters (RV) and, where available, for Likely Voters (LV), Independent (IND) and moderate (MOD) voters.

President Obama Remains Strong on National Security

Polls continue to demonstrate strong support for President Obama across a wide range of national security issues, including among centrist voters.

International Affairs

President Obama bests Mitt Romney on who is trusted to do a better job handling international affairs by roughly 7 points (LV : 50% to 43%; IND: 48% to 39%; MOD: 55% to 35%).2 Obama also beats Romney on handling an unexpected major crisis by 9 points (LV: 52% to 43%; IND: 46% to 43%; MOD: 56% to 33%).3

Terrorism

By a 2:1 margin, Americans believe the President’s handling of terrorism is a major reason to support his reelection.4 With RVs, Obama leads Romney 53% to 39% on who is trusted to do a better job handling terrorism. Obama also garners a substantial margin of support on this question with both INDs, 51% to 43%, and MODs, 62% to 32%.5

Libya

Voters are split on the President’s response to Libya, with 35% approving, 38% disapproving, and 27% offering no opinion. Partisans are in their corners on this one, with 60% of Democrats—and only 12% of Republicans—approving. Only 40% of INDs disapprove of the response, with the majority supporting the President or expressing no opinion (IND: 28% approve and 31% have no opinion).6

Drones

The President’s aggressive use of drones is overwhelmingly popular. A February survey found that 83% approve of his drone policy, including 77% of liberal Democrats.7 A June survey found that 62% of Americans (IND: 60%) approved of the Administration’s drone strikes with only 28% disapproving.8

Afghanistan

A poll in late May found that 78% support Obama’s drawdown plan for Afghanistan.9 An April poll found that 49% of RVs approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan generally, with 41% disapproving, but the margin is much closer with INDs, where 46% approve and 45% disapprove.10

Guantánamo Bay

The President’s (grudging) decision to keep Guantánamo Bay open draws support from 70% of RV, including 53% of liberal Democrats and 67% of moderate and conservative Democrats.11

Veterans

Despite the President’s support for veterans programs, veterans themselves still lean to the right, favoring Romney by 24 points (58-34%).12

The Security Gap Returns?

Despite the President’s strengths, the Democratic Party does not enjoy the same advantage. For decades, Democrats were considered weak on national security, being viewed as indecisive, afraid to use force, and too willing to support defense budget cuts. While this security gap disappeared in late 2006 as concerns mounted about Republicans and the Iraq War, it soon reappeared, and the party brands are now roughly even.13

Looking ahead for the next few years, which political party do you think will do a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats?

Party to Better Protect Country from Terrorism & Military Threat

As we found in our focus groups,14 President Obama’s strong ratings on national security issues have not been completely reflected in his party’s brand. Our 2012 focus groups revealed many of the same biases about Democrats that we heard in 2008. And a Gallup poll from fall 2011 found that just six months after the bin Laden raid, Americans favored Republicans by 11 points on protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats, although the parties have recently achieved parity.15

A similar question was asked in a series of polls in 2011 about who is trusted to do a better job of protecting the country, Democrats or Republicans. Republicans began 2011 with a 9-point lead over Democrats. The parties achieved near parity after the bin Laden mission. Then Democrats began a slow decline, bottoming out at 36%—14 points behind Republicans—at the end of 2011, before recovering in 2012.

Trust to do a Better Job of Protecting the Country16

Trust to do a Better Job of Protecting the Country

* The question was not asked in March and April. The May 3-7, 2012 Associated Press/Gfk poll changed the question, asking not about the parties but about “Barack Obama” and “Mitt Romney.” In that survey, 53% selected President Obama and 37% Romney.

Contextualizing Defense Cuts

In the 2012 election cycle, defense spending will remain a salient issue, especially in the context of deficit reduction. An April 2012 Pew survey reflected another finding from our focus groups: 58% of RV (and 55% of IND) associated “reducing defense spending” with the Democratic Party.17 At the same time, more than half of Americans think we spend too little (24%) or the right amount (32%) on defense, with just 41% saying we spend too much.18

Views of U.S. Defense Spending

Views of U.S. Defense Spending

And yet, poll after poll also illustrates that when forced to choose among a series of options for reducing the budget deficit, cuts to defense spending are popular. For example, a recent study asked respondents if we should raise revenues, reduce non-defense spending, or reduce national defense spending to address the deficit. Sixty-two percent (and 52% of IND) selected reductions in defense spending.19

With more context provided to voters, defense cuts become more popular. In an April budgeting exercise, 665 Americans were given the base defense budget for 2012 and asked to set a level for 2013; 76% reduced defense spending, including 68% of IND.20 The average spending cut was $127 billion (23%). Among IND, it was higher— $147 billion (26%) was cut.21

When respondents are offered comparisons between our defense spending and other spending, some elicit strong responses:

  • When comparing defense spending and discretionary spending, 65% said the defense spending was much or somewhat more than they expected.22
  • When looking at defense spending over time (since 1960), 60% said it was more than expected (including 64% of IND).23
  • Comparisons of the U.S. defense budget with the combined budget of our potential adversaries (China, Russia, North Korea, Iran) or allies (NATO, Japan, South Korea) resulted in 56% saying it was more than expected (55% of IND).24

By contrast, comparing defense budgets to entitlement spending or framing it as a percentage of GDP did not produce the same result—clear majorities believing that defense spending was too high.25

Mixed Views on Iran

Polls demonstrate that Americans are deeply concerned about Iran but do not agree on how to address their concerns. Nearly half of Americans approve of President Obama’s handling of Iran (40% disapprove), with IND evenly split.26 Yet overwhelmingly (64%), Americans believe that tougher economic sanctions will not force Iran to give up its nuclear program, including 67% of IND.27

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans want to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action, including 55% of IND.28 However, 70% oppose the U.S. proceeding with a military strike on its own (IND: 73%).29 A majority of Americans (54%) are worried that the U.S. will wait too long to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, and only 34% express the opposite concern of acting too quickly.30 The only group expressing more concern about acting too quickly is liberal Democrats, 50% to 38%.

When directly confronted with the option of the “U.S. bombing Iran’s nuclear development sites,” 51% were opposed—including 51% of Independents and 54% of moderates—and 42% were in support.31 A slim majority, 51%, also opposed Israel bombing Iran’s nuclear development sites, including 51% of Independents and 54% of moderates.32 If Israel attacks Iran, 51% want the U.S. to remain neutral, including 58% of Independents and conservative/moderate Democrats.33 While the data suggests that the public has some appetite for military conflict with Iran, they may not appreciate the odds of success or the magnitude of the consequences.34

Broad Support for Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The public strongly supports withdrawing from Afghanistan while support for staying the course has dropped off dramatically. Since the killing of Osama bin Laden, support for keeping troops in Afghanistan has plummeted among all groups. Pew has tracked this issue for a number of years (see chart below), and we are at the lowest levels of support for the war since fall 2009.35 Between March and April of 2012, the percentage of Americans believing the U.S. military effort was going very/fairly well fell from 51% to 41%. The drop-off was evident amongst all partisan groups, including Democrats (-14 points), Republicans (-11 points), and IND (-3 points).

The same Pew analysis found major declines in support for keeping troops in Afghanistan. Sixty percent now support removing troops as soon as possible, including 73% of Democrats and 58% of IND. The lack of support for keeping troops in Afghanistan has stabilized over the past year, as evidenced by this chart (from Pew):

Record-Low Support for Keeping U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

On the pace of troop withdrawal, 46% (and 46% of IND) think President Obama is removing troops from Afghanistan at about the right pace, with only 17% (14% of IND) believing it is too quick.36

No Appetite for Intervention in Syria

Americans do not want to see the U.S. embroiled in Syria. Only 25% agree that the U.S. has a “responsibility to do something about fighting in Syria,” with 64% disagreeing.37 There is opposition to bombing Syrian forces to “protect anti-government groups” (62%) and “sending arms to anti-government groups” (63%).38 Sending troops into Syria is also unpopular with 81% of Americans.39 The only popular option is economic and diplomatic sanctions (63% support; IND: 58%) and enforcing a no-fly zone (58% support).40

These are similar to responses given in 2011 about Libya. In March 2011, only 27% thought we had a responsibility to do something about Libya, with 63% opposed.41Further, 77% opposed bombing Libyan air defenses and 69% sending arms to anti-government groups.42 As these comparisons demonstrate, Americans rarely support intervention.

A Divide on Interrogation/Detention

Americans are divided over the use of harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. In a November 2011 survey, 45% said it was justified to sometimes use them to get information from a suspected terrorist with 40% opposed (6% volunteered it depends and 9% didn’t know).43 Phrased as a response to terrorist threats, 51% favored harsh techniques (26% strongly favored) with 34% opposed and 15% neutral.44

Half of Americans favor (28% strongly) the detention of non-U.S. suspected terrorists for extended periods of time without being charged, including 47% of Independents.45

Conclusion

The polling on national security has been relatively stable over the last several months and consistently shows complexity in the politics of these issues. President Obama is broadly popular and trusted, while his Party is struggling to overcome historical deficiencies. There is fairly strong support for his policies on Iran and Afghanistan but uncertainty that those policies will work.President Obama may run for re-election touting successes in national security, but the fall-out from Libya is still unknown as polls on national security have been scarce since these events unfolded.

  1. Matt Bennett, Mieke Eoyang, Michelle Diggles, Dr. Jeremy Rosner, Kristi Lowe, and Amanda Oefelein, “National Security Focus Group Report,” Report, Third Way and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, March 2012. Accessed June 20, 2012. Available at: http://thirdway.org/programs/national_security_program/publications/505.

  2. Washington Post-ABC News 2012 Election Poll, October 10–13, 2012, Published October 15, 2012. Accessed October 15, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/polling/postabc-2012-election-poll-oct-1013/2012/10/15/b1a6e294-167c-11e2-a346-f24efc680b8d_page.html.

  3. Washington Post-ABC News 2012 Election Poll, October 10–13, 2012, Published October 15, 2012. Accessed October 15, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/polling/postabc-2012-election-poll-oct-1013/2012/10/15/b1a6e294-167c-11e2-a346-f24efc680b8d_page.html.

  4. Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen, “Poll finds broad support for Obama’s counterterrorism policies,” The Washington Post, February 8, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-finds-broad-support-for-obamas-counterterrorism-policies/2012/02/07/gIQAFrSEyQ_story.html.

  5. Washington Post-ABC News 2012 Election Poll, September 26–29, 2012, Published October 1, 2012, Accessed October 16, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/page/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2012/10/01/National-Politics/Polling/question_7252.xml?uuid=qoqRXAu2EeKXp0XAXvE2sg.

  6. “On the Eve of Foreign Debate, Growing Pessimism about Arab Spring Aftermath,” Pew Center for the People & the Press, Published October 18, 2012, Accessed October 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/10/18/on-eve-of-foreign-debate-growing-pessimism-about-arab-spring-aftermath/.

  7. Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen, “Poll finds broad support for Obama’s counterterrorism policies,” The Washington Post, February 8, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-finds-broad-support-for-obamas-counterterrorism-policies/2012/02/07/gIQAFrSEyQ_story.html.

  8. “Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Released June 13, 2012. Accessed September 28, 2012. Available at: http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/06/13/global-opinion-of-obama-slips-international-policies-faulted/.

  9. Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen, “Poll finds broad support for Obama’s counterterrorism policies,” The Washington Post, February 8, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-finds-broad-support-for-obamas-counterterrorism-policies/2012/02/07/gIQAFrSEyQ_story.html.

  10. Washington Post April 2012 Monthly Poll, April 5–8, 2012, Published July 9, 2012, Accessed October 16, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/page/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2012/04/26/National-Politics/Polling/question_4331.xml?uuid=ftAUoo-0EeGxMuqxn06LLg.

  11. Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen, “Poll finds broad support for Obama’s counterterrorism policies,” The Washington Post, February 8, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-finds-broad-support-for-obamas-counterterrorism-policies/2012/02/07/gIQAFrSEyQ_story.html.

  12. Frank Newport, “Veterans Give Romney Big Lead Over Obama,” Gallup, May 28, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/154904/Veterans-Give-Romney-Big-Lead-Obama.aspx?ref=more.

  13. Lydia Saad, “Democrats Pull Even With Republicans as Better on Terrorism,” Gallup, September 13, 2012, Accessed October 16, 2012. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/157445/democrats-pull-even-republicans-better-terrorism.aspx.

  14. Matt Bennett, Mieke Eoyang, Michelle Diggles, Dr. Jeremy Rosner, Kristi Lowe, and Amanda Oefelein, “National Security Focus Group Report,” Report, Third Way and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, March 2012. Accessed June 20, 2012. Available at: http://thirdway.org/programs/national_security_program/publications/505.

  15. Frank Newport, “Americans Give GOP Edge in Handling Nation’s Problems,” Gallup, September 30, 2011. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/149783/Americans-Give-GOP-Edge-Handling-Nation-Problems.aspx.

  16. Associated Press/Gfk Polls. Retrieved June 1, 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html.

  17. “What the Public knows about the Political Parties,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, April 11, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/04/11/what-the-public-knows-about-the-political-parties/.

  18. Jeffrey M. Jones, “Fewer Americans Say U.S. is No. 1 Military Power,” Gallup, March 12, 2012. Accessed October 16, 2012. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/153185/Fewer-Americans-Say-No-Military-Power.aspx.

  19. Steven Kull, Matthew Leatherman, and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending,” Report, Program for Public Consultation, May 10, 2012, p. 17. Print.

  20. Steven Kull, Matthew Leatherman, and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending,” Report, Program for Public Consultation, May 10, 2012, pp. 17-18. Print.

  21. Steven Kull, Matthew Leatherman, and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending,” Report, Program for Public Consultation, May 10, 2012, p. 18. Print.

  22. Steven Kull, Matthew Leatherman, and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending,” Report, Program for Public Consultation, May 10, 2012, pp. 7-8. Print.

  23. Steven Kull, Matthew Leatherman, and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending,” Report, Program for Public Consultation, May 10, 2012, pp. 9-10. Print.

  24. Steven Kull, Matthew Leatherman, and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending,” Report, Program for Public Consultation, May 10, 2012, pp. 12-14. Print.

  25. Steven Kull, Matthew Leatherman, and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending,” Report, Program for Public Consultation, May 10, 2012, pp. 8-9, 11-12. Print.

  26. In March, Pew found 47% approved and 40% disapproved. In May, Fox found 48% approved and 40% disapproved. “Little Support for U.S. Intervention in Syrian Conflict,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, March 15, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/03/15/little-support-for-u-s-intervention-in-syrian-conflict/; See also Fox News Poll, May 13-15, 2012, from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html.

  27. “Public Takes Strong Stance Against Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, February 15, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/02/15/public-takes-strong-stance-against-irans-nuclear-program/?src=prc-headline.

  28. “Public Takes Strong Stance Against Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, February 15, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/02/15/public-takes-strong-stance-against-irans-nuclear-program/?src=prc-headline.

  29. Dina Smeltz, “Foreign Policy in the New Millennium,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, May 25–June 8, 2012. Accessed September 28, 2012, pp. 29 and 47. Available at: http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/UserFiles/File/Task%20Force%20Reports/2012_CCS_Report.pdf.

  30. “Little Support for U.S. Intervention in Syrian Conflict,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, March 15, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/03/15/little-support-for-u-s-intervention-in-syrian-conflict/.

  31. Washington Post-ABC News Poll, March 7-10, 2012. Accessed June 1, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/polling/march-2012-monthly/2012/04/26/gIQAxnT9iT_page.html.

  32. Washington Post-ABC News Poll, March 7-10, 2012. Accessed June 1, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/polling/march-2012-monthly/2012/04/26/gIQAxnT9iT_page.html.

  33. “Public Takes Strong Stance Against Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, February 15, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/02/15/public-takes-strong-stance-against-irans-nuclear-program/?src=prc-headline.

  34. For more on Iran, see Mieke Eoyang, Aki Peritz, Lauren Oppenheimer, and Robert Walther, “Iran: Keeping our Powder Dry,” Digest, Third Way, March 2012. Accessed June 20, 2012. Available at: http://www.thirdway.org/programs/1/publications/502.

  35. “Most Swing Voters Favor Afghan Troop Withdrawal,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, April 18, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/04/18/most-swing-voters-favor-afghan-troop-withdrawal/; See also “One Eve of Foreign Debate, Growing Pessimism about Arab Spring Aftermath.”

  36. “On the Eve of Foreign Debate, Growing Pessimism about Arab Spring Aftermath,” Pew Center for the People & the Press, Published October 18, 2012, Accessed October 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/10/18/on-eve-of-foreign-debate-growing-pessimism-about-arab-spring-aftermath/.

  37. “Little Support for U.S. Intervention in Syrian Conflict,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, March 15, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/03/15/little-support-for-u-s-intervention-in-syrian-conflict/.

  38. “Little Support for U.S. Intervention in Syrian Conflict,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, March 15, 2012. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2012/03/15/little-support-for-u-s-intervention-in-syrian-conflict/.

  39. Dina Smeltz, “Foreign Policy in the New Millennium,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, May 25–June 8, 2012. Accessed September 28, 2012, p. 28. Available at: http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/UserFiles/File/Task%20Force%20Reports/2012_CCS_Report.pdf.

  40. Dina Smeltz, “Foreign Policy in the New Millennium,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, May 25–June 8, 2012. Accessed September 28, 2012, p. 28. Available at: http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/UserFiles/File/Task%20Force%20Reports/2012_CCS_Report.pdf.

  41. Dina Smeltz, “Foreign Policy in the New Millennium,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, May 25–June 8, 2012. Accessed September 28, 2012, p. 28. Available at: http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/UserFiles/File/Task%20Force%20Reports/2012_CCS_Report.pdf.

  42. Dina Smeltz, “Foreign Policy in the New Millennium,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, May 25–June 8, 2012. Accessed September 28, 2012, p. 28. Available at: http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/UserFiles/File/Task%20Force%20Reports/2012_CCS_Report.pdf.

  43. CBS News Poll, November 6-10, 2011. Retrieved June 1, 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html.

  44. Associated Press/NORC Poll, July 28-August 15, 2011. Retrieved June 1, 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html.

  45. Associated Press/NORC Poll, July 28-August 15, 2011. Retrieved June 1, 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Accessed May 31, 2012. Available at: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html.

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