Republicans Losing Edge on Foreign Policy Issues

A new poll commissioned by NPR confirms what we’ve seen in other recent surveys: Republicans have lost their longstanding dominance on national security issues. This survey is particularly instructive, though, because it polls only likely voters; indeed, 99 percent of the respondents claim to have voted in 2004.

The survey found the president’s job approval rating at 39 percent (only 23 percent “strongly” approved) and the Democrats outpolled President Bush on all foreign policy subjects but Iran:

Photo: Republicans Losing Edge on Foreign Policy Issues

Interestingly, while the overall results were the same, the margins decreased when “the Republicans” rather than “President Bush” was offered as the alternate to the Democrats.

Photo: Republicans Losing Edge on Foreign Policy Issues

There’s no good spin to be put on this one if you’re a Republican.

Republican pollster Glen Bolger says that, from his perspective, the results are a “bunch of ugly numbers.”


“This is not the only poll that is showing significant problems for Republicans on the generic ballot, significant problems for the president,” Bolger says. “We’re in a hole, and we’re at a point where we’ve got to start digging our way out, as opposed to digging deeper.”


Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says the numbers present Democrats with a real opportunity for electoral gains. “All of these issues are related to different kinds of foreign threats to the country,” he notes. “On every single issue, voters favor the Democrats. This is a different landscape — we were looking for 20-point advantages for Republicans on anything related to security. This ought to be the center of where you would trust the Republicans, and that’s not happening here. There’s clearly a new opening, new doubts about the Republicans and new openings for the Democrats.”


“One clear piece of evidence in the data is that Republicans benefited by showing some independence from the president on the ports deal,” Bolger says. “Democrats have a 16-point advantage over the president in terms of who [voters] trust, and only an 8-point advantage over the Republicans on the ports deal. So the Republican Congress’ stand of independence cut the Democratic advantage on this issue in half.”

While I maintain that, policywise, Bush was actually right and the Republican congressmen who deserted him were wrong on the ports issue, it’s certainly the case that the latter were on the right side politically.

What all this means for November, of course, remains to be seen. Still, there’s no doubt that Greenberg is in better position.

Democrats hope the president’s low approval ratings will continue to drag his party down. “It is because the president’s popularity is clearly the center of this,” Democratic pollster Greenberg says. “He’s defining the course for the Republicans. They’re going to try to separate. I think that’s difficult for them to achieve.”

Republican pollster Bolger acknowledges that GOP lawmakers face a “careful calculus” in deciding on which issues they will seek to distance themselves from President Bush.

That’s always the case, given that congressional races are usually decided on local issues. The question is whether this year will, like 1974 and 1994, be different. Is the groundswell of public frustration strong enough to nationalize the election with a “throw the bums out” furor? I still doubt that.

The good news for the Republicans is that, thanks to computer-aided gerrymandering, there are very few truly competitive districts. One would like to have a little more than that to cling to, however.

The full survey is available in PDF format here.

Full disclosure: My wife is a VP at Bolger’s firm, Public Opinion Strategies. I first learned of the poll when I heard the story on Morning Edition.

FILED UNDER: 2006 Election, Congress, Public Opinion Polls, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    I am not surprised in the response about the President’s illegal immigration policy, but talk about loaded questions…

    Why not just say:

    Are you for homeland security?
    Do you want to outsource jobs?
    Do you support religious violence?
    A nuclear Iran?

    Yet another crappy, irresponsible poll that means nothing.

  2. James Joyner says:

    LJD: Really, every poll whose results you dislike is not “crappy.”

    POS and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner are, respectively, the best Republican and Democratic polling firms in the country. The parties and their leading candidates for national and statewide office pay them millions to commission surveys because their results are trustworthy.

    And your alternate questions make no sense. The survey is asking which party likely voters trust more to handle those issues, not what the public’s view of those issues is.

  3. MrGone says:

    I would respectfully suggest that the Republican “edge” wasn’t anything more than perception and marketing to begin with. The security failures and bungling of this administration and congress are unbelievable even by historical standards. They are after all the ones who were in control during 9/11(of course no one is blamed). The ones who brought us into a war with Iraq on faulty intelligence(benefit of doubt given here). The ones who showed us just how “adult” they were at dealing with an actual disaster. The ones who showed us how to protect the ports and critical infrastructure. I think what’s finally happened here is that people are looking at the results instead of the spin and you know what, it don’t look pretty.

  4. James Joyner says:

    MrGone: I would note that it’s easy to criticize from the sidelines. The Democrats haven’t been in charge, so they can claim they would have done better.

    I would note that Osama declared war on the U.S halfway through Clinton’s watch and that 9/11 was five years later. And the current problems with port security were there when Clinton was in office, too. Bush deserves blame for not having done more but it’s not like things were going swimmingly before; the cracks just hadn’t manifested in an explosion yet.

  5. LJD says:

    I merely point out that there’s not much value in polls, depending on the use. Sorry if that steps on your toes as a political scientist.

    Research for use in marketing perhaps has some value. Polls about national policy are not an indication of any hard facts. There is often a broad gap between opinion and fact, and the masses are often uninformed. I thought you recently pointed out that 80% of Americans believing there was civil war in Iraq was irrelevant? We don’t run this country by polls because we trust our elected representatives to make decisions for us.

    You can’t give any credence to the fact the the questions are poorly worded? From the question, this is supposed to be a list of issues, right? It appears to be more of a list of complaints: ‘lack of attention’, ‘outsourcing’ and ‘violence (i.e. civil war)’. All very leading concepts that point to complaints about this administration specifically.

    I would think much simpler terms would have yielded different results. i.e. Immigration, Homeland Security, Global Economic Competition, and so on.

    You should also note that ‘polls’ have determined THE most significant problem facing the U.S. to be Iran.

  6. James Joyner says:


    I agree that polls aren’t very useful in deciding public policy or answering most questions of fact. Whether there is going to be a civil war in Iraq is something that not even geniune experts know; polling on that is silly.

    Polling is useful, however, for gauging the public mood. What all the polls tell us is that the Republicans are in trouble at the moment. They don’t tell us anything about what will happen between now and November, of course, but November is getting pretty doggone close.

    I’m curious about the question wording as well, although Bolger and Greenberg agreed upon it. My guess is that it has to do with solving specific problems rather than generic issues.

  7. MrGone says:

    James, First off, I didn’t say the Democrats would do better. Although it’s hard to believe they could do any worse. All I was pointing out is the fallacy that the Republican spin machine keeps spouting, they are the party who will keep us safe. Right!

    Second, you can blame Clinton all you want but these guys have been in charge for 6 years now. In addition, according to the right wing mantra, “9/11 changed everything!” Well, if I believe that, it means that our government should have been doing everything humanly possible to protect us and improve security. Guess what? It’s not true. Nothing’s changed! Nada, zero, zip! By all accounts, it’s worse.

    These guys are all the same(left and right). They don’t care about me or you. They only care about money and power. Stop acting like any of them are highly moral, upstanding public servants. They are ALL crooks and liars. The problem I have now is that the current majority party is using the cloak of security and fear to basically get away with everything they’ve wanted for years.

    Just think for a second about what’s been going on. Not a single veto! Not one! This hasn’t happened since John Adams. The President comes out and says he doesn’t need to follow laws. Congress just sits on its hands. We are sinking into unparalleled debt and foreign investment. There is no accountability, no responsibility, nothing. Things like this scare me. I wish I could have your rosy view of the future but, to me it look pretty dim.

  8. LJD says:

    Some additional thought on this… This poll wants to tell us that the Republicans, specifically the president, are in trouble. What recent poll has told us anything different? What news report has told us anything different? I am not personally enamoured with their every move.

    However, we don’t expect the next election to be decided on these five issues. Just because a person might be willing to cross parties in the next election does not necessarily say that they will subscribe to, or in any way accept the rest of the party platform.

    I think in the last election we saw the alternatives to be so distasteful that Bush was elected, even though not the ideal candidate. Still, according to the exit polls in 2004, John Kerry is our President.