Center for American Progress

RELEASE: New CAP Poll Reveals What American Voters Really Want in U.S. Foreign Policy Debate
Press Release

RELEASE: New CAP Poll Reveals What American Voters Really Want in U.S. Foreign Policy Debate

Washington, D.C. — Political leaders on both sides of the aisle are not talking about foreign policy in ways that connect with voters, according to a new poll from the Center for American Progress and GBAO Strategies. The poll’s findings suggest that Americans want the country to be strong at home in order to compete in the world.

The poll finds that voters overwhelmingly believe protection of the U.S. homeland, its people, and American jobs should be the top goals of foreign policy. These voters see domestic investment as a critical part of successful foreign policy—not a separate or competing priority.

While President Donald Trump’s brand of nationalism does have a core base of supporters, far more Americans favor some form of balanced engagement with the world that relies on diplomacy and economic tools more than the military, the poll found. Voters also overwhelmingly believe that investments in domestic priorities are critical to successful competition with Russia and China.

“The main takeaway from our poll is that Americans don’t have a clear sense of their country’s foreign policy goals and that traditional foreign policy language doesn’t resonate with them,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at CAP and co-author of a report analyzing the poll. “But this presents an important opportunity for leaders and candidates to offer a clearer alternative.”

The findings suggest that American voters are not isolationist. Rather, voters are more accurately described as supporting “restrained engagement” in international affairs—a strategy that favors diplomatic, political, and economic actions over military action when advancing U.S. interests in the world.

But messages that use common national security expressions such as “fighting authoritarianism and dictatorships” or “promoting democracy” around the world fail to resonate with voters, notwithstanding the importance of what they convey. Candidates running for president in 2020 will need to offer a clearer alternative that is accessible to Americans and that speaks to what they want.

The poll finds that American voters want their political leaders to make more public investments in the American people in order to compete in the world. They also want the United States to strike a better balance abroad after more than a decade of what they see as military overextension.

“When it comes to foreign policy, most Americans prioritize security: protection against attacks by terrorist groups such as ISIS, ensuring good jobs with high wages, and safeguarding our democracy against foreign interference,” Katulis said. “But they don’t see President Trump or anyone else offering plans or ideas that directly address these concerns and connect domestic investment with international strength.”

Some key findings from the poll:

  • Fifty-seven percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s foreign policy and 62 percent believe the United States is losing respect in the world
  • Fifty-six percent view China as the nation’s top competitor
  • A new voter landscape in the politics of national security has emerged under Trump: About one third (33%) of voters may be classified as “Trump nationalists”; just over one-quarter (28%) are “global activists” prioritizing climate change and economic inequality; less than one-fifth (18%) are “traditional internationalists” supporting alliances and trade; and another 21 percent are essentially disengaged from foreign policy issues.
  • Sixty-eight percent of Americans believe the United States must invest more at home to remain competitive in the world—not just increase military and defense spending.
  • Nearly 6 in 10 voters favor diplomacy over military action in protecting U.S. interests while only one-third of voters strongly agree with prioritizing defense spending over domestic programs.
  • More than 7 in 10 regular Fox News viewers strongly agree with restricting both legal and illegal immigration. But less than half of voters overall agree.

These findings are based on a nationally representative online survey of 2,000 registered voters conducted in February and March 2019.

Read the report analyzing the poll: “America Adrift: How the U.S. Foreign Policy Debate Misses What Voters Really Want,” by John Halpin, Brian Katulis, Peter Juul, Karl Agne, Jim Gerstein, and Nisha Jain.

Review the survey results: “Center for American Progress Foreign Policy and National Security Nationwide Online Survey.”

For more information, or to talk to an expert, please contact Sam Hananel at [email protected], or 202-478-6327.