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Pollster Kohut: Foreign Policy Most Important Issue in 2004 Elections

Interviewee: Andrew Kohut, Director, Pew Global Attitudes Project
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 13, 2004

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Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, says a nationwide survey conducted in association with the Council on Foreign Relations finds that, for the first time since the Vietnam era, national security "looms larger than economic concerns in the presidential elections."

"When we asked people what values they wanted in foreign policy," Kohut says, "as many people said decisive foreign policy as [said] a cautious foreign policy. The Republicans lined up in favor of decisive foreign policy over caution, and the Democrats were just the reverse."

Kohut says that 40 percent of the electorate seems solidly behind Democratic nominee John F. Kerry and another 40 percent are staunch supporters of President Bush. The 20 percent of so-called swing voters, he says, appear evenly divided between the two major candidates.

Kohut was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on August 13, 2004.


What are the survey's main findings?

The principal finding is, for the first time since the Vietnam era, foreign affairs/national security looms larger than economic concerns in the presidential election. The September 11 attacks have not only raised the stakes for Americans, but also created deep divisions of opinion about foreign policy and national security.

How is this playing out in the campaign?

We can see two influences within public opinion. Unlike a year or two ago, where we mostly saw the impact of the 9/11 attacks, we now [also] see the impact of disillusionment with Iraq. We have a public which is divided about whether the Iraq war was a good thing to do. And, as a consequence, we find many people saying that the United States lost [international] respect and that this is a significant problem. On the other hand, we find almost as much support for pre-emptive war as we did a year ago, when Iraq was being judged a success. So we have this tension in public opinion.

When we asked people what values they wanted in foreign policy, almost as many people said a decisive foreign policy as [said] a cautious foreign policy. The Republicans lined up in favor of decisive foreign policy over caution, and the Democrats were just the reverse. [This] is another characteristic of what we see in attitudes toward security issues, and that is a widening gap in terms of partisanship. The reason support for pre-emption remains as high as it does is because Republicans are more supportive of pre-emption than they were previously.

In presidential candidate John Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, he stressed— he continues to in his campaign— that if he were elected president, he would restore international respect for the United States.

A very large number of people think we're less respected— 67 percent— and most people see that as a problem. That question has two forms: in one, we asked, are we less respected; in the other, we asked if we were less liked. They both got equally high numbers, but I think it's respect that concerns the public at this point.

How volatile are these numbers? Could events in Iraq cause them to shift?

I don't think the deeper attitudes toward foreign policy are all that volatile, but I do think people's attitudes toward Iraq have been event-driven. One of the things that has impressed me is that opinions in support of Iraq have been somewhat resilient. We have seen some ups and downs— when things get a little bit better, people tend to have a more positive view of the decision to go to war; when things get a little worse, they begin to rue the decision a little more. [But] there hasn't been a free-fall decline in support for the war the way there was in Vietnam after [the North Vietnamese] Tet [offensive of 1968]. There's nothing even close to that. What we find is that many people worry Iraq could become another Vietnam, but most people don't think Iraq will become another Vietnam.

How much of this is driven by U.S. casualties? The number of casualties, particularly the number killed, is still fairly small compared to other wars.

We asked in the poll, "Are casualties getting higher, lower?" We had only about a third saying that they are higher than they have been, but 50 percent saying that Iraqi civilian casualties have been higher lately. I think casualties are an important part of this. But we haven't seen, after the hand-off [of sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government on June 28], the public thinking the situation is getting better or the new government is doing a good job. For the attitude toward the war in Iraq to change, there has to be some real signs of progress, which would include fewer casualties and a more stable situation.

If you were an adviser to President Bush, how would you adapt your approach to the campaign, particularly with the convention coming up, based on these polls results?

I don't know. I'm not a campaign consultant; I am a public opinion pollster. But I think the one thing the public continues to hang on to is the notion that America is under a threat, that the war on terror is America's No. 1 foreign policy priority. The extent to which the public has stuck with the decision to go to war with Iraq is a measure of how many people continue to see it as part of the war on terrorism. This is something the Bush camp has really been emphasizing over the last two to three months, and this is a chord that many people still respond to, [though] fewer than in the past.

Should Senator Kerry continue along the lines he outlined in his convention speech— press the fact that the United States is not respected, not very popular?

People do see this as a problem. They don't say, "Well, we're not respected. So what?" They say, "We're not respected, and that's a problem."

Most people would prefer to see the United States as part of a coalition in Iraq, and not the big leader?

That's right. While the public supports the notion of pre-emptive war, it wants allies and burden-sharing [to deal] with these problems, even though they directly affect the United States. This is not Yugoslavia.

Does oil figure into this?

I don't think that's an issue for the public. The public wants our energy supply guaranteed, but I've never seen any polls suggesting that the public thought we should go to war with Iraq over oil.

And your poll did not measure attitudes toward Saudi Arabia?

No, it did not.

What did the poll show about public sentiment toward the United Nations?

The public gave the United Nations pretty low ratings last year, but what the poll shows is a little more support for the United Nations.

The poll also indicates that many people condone the use of torture in some circumstances.

The public continues to take a pretty hard line on measures to protect us from terrorism. Forty percent say that torture can be, at times, justified, if it helps prevent terrorism.

The poll indicates Republicans are more supportive of it.

That's right. There is a partisan gap on that question. And also, more of the public, on balance, thinks strong measures should be taken to protect us than are concerned that civil liberties are being lost.

According to the poll, many people say torture is acceptable if it leads to some significant accomplishment.

It's really simple: people are still scared.

The latest threats of new terrorist attacks only heighten the fear, I suppose. Does that help the Republicans?

If this election were only about domestic issues, Bush would probably lose. If it were only about terrorism, he would probably win. One card [he still holds] is his image, his leadership image, and his leadership in the war on terrorism.

How does the electorate break down? How many independents do you find?

About a third of the public is independent. But in terms of the horse race, you have 40 [percent] committed to Kerry, 40 [percent] committed to Bush, and about 20 [percent] swing voters, [who] are, more or less, evenly divided.

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