The Wall Street Journal and NBC News are out with a new poll today on Campaign 2016. Much of the coverage is about which candidates are up and which are down. Believe those numbers at your peril. The public’s assessments of individual candidates can and do shift quickly in the early stages of a campaign.
The more interesting part of the poll deals with foreign policy. Here are three takeaways:
1. The public is looking more favorably on free trade. When asked whether free trade has helped the United States, hurt it, or not made much of a difference either way, 37 percent of Americans say it has helped, while 31 percent say it has hurt. Last November, the numbers were roughly the opposite, with 30 percent saying it has helped and 38 percent saying it has hurt. It will be interesting to see whether these numbers move as the debates over trade promotion authority (TPA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) proceed. But remember that levels of public support and opposition typically matter far less to politicians than the intensity of public opinion. That is, squeaky wheels are more likely to get the grease. And all signs suggest that the anti-TPA and anti-TPP forces are currently squeaking louder.
2. Americans are leaning in favor of striking a nuclear deal with Iran. When asked whether it is “important to have an agreement” or if an agreement is “too risky,” 54 percent say it is important, while 37 percent say it is too risky. That’s good news for the White House, assuming of course that it can complete a deal. But desiring a deal is not the same thing as embracing the one currently on the table. While 36 percent of Americans say they support the agreement being negotiated, an even larger number—40 percent—say they don’t know enough to have an opinion. So opinion on the deal could shift significantly with events.
3. Americans overall remain more worried about the economy than about national security and terrorism. A majority of Americans (53 percent) say that job creation and economic growth should be the federal government’s first or second priority. Just 39 percent say that about national security and terrorism. But things look different when you focus just on likely GOP primary voters. They are much more inclined to see national security and terrorism (53 percent) as a top priority than job creation and economic growth (42 percent). In comparison, just 30 percent of likely Democratic voters would make national security and terrorism a top priority. So don’t be surprised if Republican presidential candidates spend a lot of time in the coming months talking about overseas threats, and Secretary Clinton doesn’t.
A bonus point: President Obama remains upside down when it comes to how the public assesses his handling of foreign policy. Fifty-three percent of Americans give him a thumbs down, while 40 percent approve. Those numbers actually represent good news for the White House. Last month 58 percent disapproved of Obama’s handling of foreign policy and just 36 percent approved.