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Seven Examples Where Partisan Divisions on Foreign Policy Widened in 2018

Running Numbers by Craig Kafura and Dina Smeltz
NATO
The American and NATO flags

Partisanship has become a major factor in foreign policy attitudes in Chicago Council Surveys; not so long-ago opinions on foreign policy seemed immune to partisan impulses.

According to Pew surveys, dislike of the opposing political party and loyalty to one’s own party greatly influenced voting decisions in the 2018 midterm elections. In recent years, partisanship has become a major factor in foreign policy attitudes in the Chicago Council Surveys; not so long ago opinions on foreign policy seemed immune to partisan impulses.

While Democrats and Republicans still generally agree on the importance of US engagement in the world, the need for a US military presence abroad, and the benefits of free trade to the US economy, they have grown wider apart on several key international issues. Here are some highlights of those increasing divisions from the past decades of Chicago Council Surveys.

1. Illegal Immigration

In 1998 and 2002 similar percentages of Republicans and Democrats agreed that controlling and reducing illegal immigration should be a very important foreign policy goal. But starting in 2004, American public opinion began fracturing along partisan lines. Generally, about seven in ten Republicans considered this a high priority since first asked this question in 1994. But the percentage of Democrats that agreed steadily fell, reaching an all-time low in 2018 (to just 20% saying this is a very important goal). In fact, this is the largest gap between Republicans and Democrats ever on this question and of all questions asked in the 2018 survey. 

Controlling and Reducing Illegal Immigration

Do you think that controlling and reducing illegal immigration should be a very important foreign policy goal of the United States, a somewhat important foreign policy goal, or not an important goal at all?

2. Support for NAFTA

Republicans and Democrats now equally agree that free trade is good for the US economy, consumers, and job creation, though during President Obama’s tenure Republicans were much less positive than Democrats. While they agree on the potential that trade can bring, in recent years Democrats are more positive than Republicans about existing trade agreements, including NAFTA.

While differences between Democrats and Republicans on NAFTA were in the single digits until 2008, views on the agreement at this point are at their widest ever with a 36-37 percentage point difference in views in the last two years. Eight in ten Democrats (79%) now say NAFTA is good for the US economy, while only 43 percent of Republicans agree. Importantly, support for NAFTA is now at its highest level ever recorded in Chicago Council Surveys, increasing 10 percentage points over the past year (from 53% to 63%).

NAFTA

Overall, do you think the North American Free Trade Agreement, also known as NAFTA, is good or bad for the US economy?

3. Commitment to NATO

In Chicago Council Surveys conducted during the Cold War, Republicans were more likely to favor increasing or maintaining US commitment to NATO, reflecting hawkish views towards the Soviet Union. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Democrats have been more likely to favor increasing or maintaining commitments to the Alliance, surpassing the highest level of support among Republicans (in 1986). Democrats seem to have solidified their support for NATO—and Republicans have become softer on the alliance – even more in the aftermath of President Trump’s criticisms of the alliance and leaders of allied countries. The 2018 Chicago Council Survey revealed the largest percentage point difference between Republicans and Democrats on this question, a& 22 percentage point difference.

NATO Commitment

Do you feel we should increase our commitment to NATO, keep our commitment what it is now, decrease our commitment to NATO, or withdraw from NATO entirely?

4. Opinion of Russia 

An interesting finding from the 2018 survey: as Democrats have firmed up their support for NATO in the past year, Republican views of Russia—though still largely unfavorable—grew more positive. In the past, regardless of political affiliation, Americans generally felt similarly about Russia within a few percentage points. But Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election had a significant and differential impact on Republicans and Democrats’ views toward Moscow. Out of a possible highest positive feeling of 100 degrees, Republicans gave Russia a 39-degree rating, an increase of five percentage points over the previous year, while Democrats average rating was 25 degrees. This is the widest gap between the two partisan groupings since the first time the Chicago Council asked this question during the Cold War. 

American Views of Russia

Please rate your feelings toward Russia, with one hundred meaning a very warm, favorable feeling, zero meaning a very cold, unfavorable feeling, and fifty meaning not particularly warm or cold. You can use any number from zero to one hundred, the higher the number the more favorable your feelings are toward Russia.

5. Emphasis on Maintaining US Military Superiority

In 1998, six in ten Republicans and Democrats expressed the view that maintaining US military superiority is a very important goal. Then the September 11 attacks happened, and Republicans and Democrats grew further apart on how much emphasis to place on military superiority, mainly because Democrats began placing lesser priority on military might. In fact, the 2018 survey revealed the largest ever gap between Democrats and Republicans who think maintaining military superiority is a very important goal, a 29 percentage point difference.

Military Superiority

Should maintaining superior military power worldwide be a very important foreign policy goal of the United States, a somewhat important foreign policy goal, or not an important goal at all?

6. Emphasis on Strengthening the United Nations

While Democrats have become likely than Republicans to focus on projecting US power through military superiority, Republicans have become less likely to focus on projecting US influence through strengthening the United Nations. From 1974 until 1998, the American public was fairly united in their views about the United Nations. But since then, the public has steadily grown apart about the importance of strengthening the United Nations. Today, while six in ten Democrats (61%) think strengthening the UN is a very important foreign policy goal, less than a third of Republicans (29%) and about a third of Independents (34%) feel the same way. For Democrats, the importance of strengthening the UN reached a high in 2018 not seen since 2002.

Strengthening the UN

Do you think that strengthening the United Nations should be a very important foreign policy goal of the United States, a somewhat important foreign policy goal, or not an important goal at all?

7. Protecting Weaker Nations 

In the last decade, the importance of protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression as a foreign policy goal of the United States has been growing apart for Democrats and Republicans. When the question was first asked in 1974 both Republicans and Democrats had similar views on this topic; however, today, 42 percent of Democrats agree that it is a very important goal compared to 24 percent of Republicans. Since this question was first asked, this is the biggest gap between Republicans and Democrats yet recorded (18 percentage points). 

About the Authors
Assistant Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Craig Kafura is the assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. At the Council, he coordinates work on public opinion and foreign policy and is a regular contributor to the public opinion and foreign policy blog Running Numbers.
Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Dina Smeltz, a polling expert, has more than 25 years of experience designing and fielding international social and political surveys. Prior to joining the Council to lead its annual survey of American attitudes on US foreign policy, she served in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department's Office of Research from 1992 to 2008.
Headshot for Dina Smeltz