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Trump and his advisers are probably wrong about what foreign policy Americans want

But, then, so are most foreign policy elites. Here’s what they’re missing.

- July 3, 2019

As President Trump weighs his options over how to respond to international events such as news out of Iran and North Korea, he’ll surely do so with an eye toward how his decisions will be received by the American public. But lest anyone think that the president has a feel for the pulse of the American people, it’s helpful to note that U.S. foreign policy opinion leaders wrongly predict public attitudes on a variety of issues, including international trade, military intervention and immigration.

Generally, research finds foreign policy opinion leaders believe the American public wants to pull back from international engagement and to spend less money on foreign aid and contributions to international organizations and prefers unilateral to multilateral approaches. Public opinion surveys show otherwise.

That disconnect continues. Our 2018 study found that foreign policy opinion leaders still underestimate public support for global engagement, trade and military intervention and overestimate public enthusiasm for deporting undocumented workers in the United States. These data suggest that elites may often accept the loudest voices on an issue to represent public opinion more broadly.

If Trump backs down from his latest Iran threat, will he lose support? We checked.

How we carried out the research

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Texas collaborated on an online opinion leaders survey. From Aug. 2 to Oct. 16, 2018, we surveyed 588 foreign policy opinion leaders from different professional groups, including executive branch agencies, Congress, academia, think tanks, the media and interest groups with lists developed from a variety of sources, including Leadership Connect and the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project. We compared the results to those from a 2018 Chicago Council survey of the general U.S. public that surveyed 2,046 adults via the GfK (now Ipsos) address-based, nationally representative online KnowledgePanel.

Here’s how the leaders got public opinion wrong on a variety of hot topics for the 2020 election cycle.

Misperception No. 1: The U.S. public doesn’t support international engagement

Nearly all opinion leaders (100 percent of Republican leaders, 97 percent of Democratic leaders and 97 percent of independent leaders) and 70 percent of the mass public believed the United States should take an active part in the world. But when asked to guess public support on this question, opinion leaders underestimated it greatly. Republican leaders thought only 46 percent of the overall public wanted to play an active role in the world; Democratic leaders estimated 51 percent; and independent leaders guessed 50 percent.

Misperception No. 2: The U.S. public opposes trade

Nearly all U.S. opinion leaders said trade is good for the U.S. economy, with 100 percent of Republicans, 97 percent of Democrats and 99 percent of independents agreeing. Eight in 10, or 82 percent, of the U.S. public shared that view. But leaders estimated only half the public would view trade as good for the U.S. economy. (Republicans thought it would be 49 percent, while Democrats and independents estimated 51 percent.)

Misperception No. 3: The U.S. public won’t support military intervention

Neither do opinion leaders seem able to adequately gauge public support for sending U.S. troops abroad or the particular importance of support from alliances like NATO. To test this, we included an embedded experiment about sending U.S. troops if a hypothetical African country were invaded by its neighbor, resulting in brutal killings, migration and terrorism. A scenario in which NATO either supported or opposed the operation was randomly assigned to respondents. Leaders were asked to estimate what percentage of the public they thought would support deploying troops on this mission.

When NATO endorsed the mission, leaders estimated the mean level of public support to be between 37 percent (estimated by Republican leaders) and 39 percent (both Democrats and independents). But in fact, 82 percent of Americans expressed at least some support for the mission when NATO endorsed the mission, as found in a separate nationally representative public survey of 1,000 respondents for the Texas National Security Project carried out online by YouGov from July 24, 2018, to Aug. 1, 2018.

Leaders also underestimated public support if NATO opposed intervention. While leaders estimated public support at about a third (with independents guessing 33 percent, Republicans 35 percent and Democrats 36 percent), in fact 64 percent of the public supported the deployment.

Misperception No. 4: Americans want to deport undocumented workers

In the 2016 Chicago Council-University of Texas leaders survey, we found that both Democratic and Republican elites underestimated public support for immigration.

Few leaders supported deportation of illegal immigrants currently working in the United States: 9 percent of Republican leaders, 1 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of independent leaders.

But when asked what they thought the public wanted, 60 percent of Republican leaders thought the public wanted illegal immigrants to be deported, compared with 44 percent of independent leaders and 27 percent of Democratic leaders.

Democratic leaders were right. Only 28 percent of the U.S. public wanted illegal immigrants to leave the country. To be sure, Republicans among the public felt more strongly about this; 42 percent wanted immigrants to leave. Trump supporters were even more ardent: 63 percent with a very favorable view of Trump said illegal immigrants must leave, similar to Republican leaders’ guess about overall public opinion.

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Why are leaders so wrong about public opinion on foreign policy?

Elites continue to be wrong about public support for active engagement in the world, trade and even the use of force. Why they’re wrong is less clear. In their 1999 book “Misreading the Public,” Steve Kull and I.M. Destler attribute elite-public misperceptions to the paucity of foreign policy opinion polls — which may have been more of a problem then than now.

They also suggest leaders perhaps base their assessments on especially “vocal publics.” In more recent work based on surveys conducted in 2012 and 2014, David Broockman and Christopher Skovron attribute elite beliefs that the public is more conservative than it actually is to the fact that conservatives have been more likely than other citizens to contact their elected representatives in recent years. Broockman and Skovron note that this bias should flip during periods when liberals are more active politically than conservatives.

Another recent study, carried out among congressional staffers by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Matto Mildenberger and Leah Stokes, attributes elite-public misperceptions to the role of interest group lobbying and the staffers’ own biases.

Whatever the reason, presidential candidates might wish to heed survey results from reputable organizations heading into 2020. Polls are a more accurate barometer of citizens’ preferences than mistaking the loudest voices as representative.

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Joshua Busby (@busbyj2) is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dina Smeltz (@roguepollster) is a senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy, at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Jordan Tama (@ProfJordanTama) is an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University.