The Politics of National Security

A review of recent public polling confirms the main findings of our 2012 focus groups:1 this election will feature 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 Independent voters (IND).

President Obama Remains Strong on National Security

Polls continue to demonstrate strong support for President Obama across a wide range of national security issues.

International Affairs

President Obama bests Mitt Romney on who is trusted to do a better job handling international affairs by roughly 20 points (RV: 56% to 37%; IND: 52-30%).2


By a 2:1 margin, Americans believe the President’s handling of terrorism is a major reason to support his reelection.3 With RVs, Obama leads Romney 47-40% on who is trusted to do a better job handling terrorism, but INDs prefer Romney 43-40%.4


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.5


A poll in late May found that 78% support Obama’s drawdown plan for Afghanistan.6

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.7


Despite the President’s support for veterans programs, veterans themselves still lean to the right, favoring Romney by 24 points (58-34%).8

The Security Gap Returns

Despite the President’s strength, 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 concern mounted about Republicans and the Iraq War, it soon reappeared, and the party brands now have largely reverted to their historical norms.

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?

Which political party do you think will do a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats?


As we found in our focus groups,9 President Obama’s strong ratings on national security issues have not been 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.10

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 a bit in 2012.

Trust to do a Better Job of Protecting the Country11
Field Dates Democrats Republicans

GOP Margin

Jan. 5-10, 2011 39% 48%


May 5-9, 2011 42% 43%


June 16-19, 2011 41% 46%


Aug. 18-22, 2011 40% 46%


Oct. 13-17, 2011 38% 45%


Dec. 8-12, 2011 36% 50%


Feb. 16-20, 2012 40% 48%


Average* 39% 47%


* 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.12 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.13

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.14

The more context provided to voters, the more that defense cuts become 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.15 The average spending cut was $127 billion (23%). Among IND, it was higher— $147 billion (26%) was cut.16

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.17
  • When looking at defense spending over time (since 1960), 60% said it was more than expected (including 64% of IND).18
  • 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).19

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.20

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.21 Yet overwhelmingly (64%), Americans believe that tougher economic sanctions will not force Iran to give up its nuclear program, including 67% of IND.22

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans want to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action, including 55% of IND.23 A majority of Americans (54%) are worried 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.24 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% in support.25 A slim majority, 51%, also opposed Israel bombing Iran’s nuclear development sites, including 51% of Independents and 54% of moderates.26 If Israel attacks Iran, 51% want the U.S. to remain neutral, including 58% of Independents and conservative/moderate Democrats.27 While the data suggests that the public has appetite for military conflict with Iran, they may not appreciate the odds of success or the magnitude of the consequences.28

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 charts below), and we are at the lowest levels of support for the war since fall 2009.29 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 38%. The drop-off was evident amongst all partisan groups, including Democrats (-15 points), Republicans (-12 points), and IND (-7 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 66% of Democrats and 62% of IND. This trend has accelerated over the past year, as evidenced by the charts (from Pew) below:

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

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

Republicans Now Split Over U.S. Troop Presence
Republicans Now Split Over U.S. Troop Presence

On the pace of troop withdrawal, 53% (and 51% of IND) think President Obama is removing troops from Afghanistan at about the right pace, with only 20% (17% of IND) believing it is too quick.30

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.31 There is opposition to bombing Syrian forces to “protect anti-government groups” (62%) and “sending arms to anti-government groups” (63%).32

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.33 Further, 77% opposed bombing Libyan air defenses and 69% sending arms to anti-government groups.34 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).35 Phrased as a response to terrorist threats, 51% favored harsh techniques (26% strongly favored) with 34% opposed and 15% neutral.36

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.37


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 not. 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 significant external events could shift public opinion away from the President. That shift would have much more damaging consequences for down-ballot Democrats who are historically disfavored in the area of national security.

End Notes