On Foreign Policy, Red and Blue Voters Are Worlds Apart

By Lee Feinstein, James M. Lindsay, and Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations

Sixteen months after the Iraq invasion, the red-state, blue-state divide has bled into foreign policy. A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in association with the Council on Foreign Relations, shows that Bush and Kerry voters see the world differently. Most significantly for the November elections, on several key issues, swing voters are more likely to see blue than red.

Americans are often accused of being oblivious to events beyond their borders. In this election year, however, events overseas have eclipsed events at home as the most important issue to the voting public for the first time since Vietnam. For most of the 1990s, fewer than 10% of Americans rated foreign policy as the most important problem facing the nation. Today, 41% cite defense, terrorism, or foreign policy as the most important national problem, compared with 26% who mention economic issues.

As Americans pay more attention to the world around them, they continue to agree on many basic views about the U.S. role abroad. They want the U.S. to be involved in the world, but not too involved. They want it to lead, but they do not want to foot the bill or shoulder the burden alone. Roughly three-quarters of Americans (74%) believe the United States should play a “shared leadership role” in the world, compared with 11% who say the U.S. should be the “single world leader.” In short, Americans believe the U.S. should play a global leadership role in concert with others.

Isolationism holds little appeal. Despite the tribulations in Iraq, only 9% of Americans think the U.S. should play no leadership role. Continued fighting in Iraq also has not persuaded Americans to embrace calls for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops. A majority of Americans (54%) continue to favor remaining in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, a number that has remained relatively constant over the course of the war.

Realpolitik does not play well with the American public, either. Americans overwhelmingly believe that morality should influence foreign policy decisions. Roughly three-quarters of the public say that “moral principles” should be the guiding light in U.S. foreign policy.

Despite these many points of agreement, Americans have grown increasingly divided on fundamental foreign policy questions. Not surprisingly, the Iraq war drives many of the divisions. Nine-in-ten Kerry voters, for example, say President Bush does not have a clear plan to bring the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion, while eight-in-ten Bush supporters say he does. A similar lopsided majority of Bush supporters (82%) say the Iraq war has helped the war on terror, mirror imaging the Kerry supporters (74%) who say the Iraq war has hurt.

But the Iraq war has exposed a deeper rift, highlighting and hardening differences about the kind of foreign policy Americans want their president to conduct. Take three examples:

  • About half of Republicans (47%) believe the U.S. is less respected in the world than in the past, but just 22% say America’s global reputation is a major issue. On the other hand, eight-in-ten Democrats say America’s reputation has declined, and 56% say this is a major problem.
  • Republicans by a 70%-24% margin say President Bush works hard to find diplomatic solutions. Democrats, by a margin of eight-to-one, say he is too quick to resort to force.
  • Roughly six-in-ten Republicans say the United States is more important and powerful than ten years ago, compared to one-in-three Democrats.

These disparities suggest something deeper than divisions over the Iraq war are at work. Bush supporters and Kerry supporters are taking sides in the longstanding debate over the relative importance of “hard” versus “soft” power. Will the U.S. be safer and more prosperous if it is feared, or if it is loved? Are America’s military strength, and the willingness to use it, what count most, or is America’s reputation abroad equally important?

For now, swing voters may be leaning toward Kerry’s side of the debate. They accord much higher importance to strengthening the United Nations and improving America’s relationship with its allies than Bush supporters do. This suggests that the task facing the president is either to persuade these voters that hard power is what will keep them safe or convince them that he too understands the importance of soft power.