America Divided: Survey Shows Major Partisan Differences in American Attitudes on Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2015 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- As the presidential campaign heats up, and GOP candidates poise to take the stage for their second debate, American public opinion on foreign policy — on issues such as immigration, climate change, Middle East peace and the best means for advancing U.S. global interests — is sharply divided among Republicans, Democrats and Independents, according to the latest survey from The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

"The intense debate over the Iran nuclear agreement has shown that Americans continue to care deeply about foreign affairs but are divided over whether military or diplomatic tools are the best source of U.S. power and influence," said Ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, president of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "This survey reveals where the divides are deepest – and helps us understand some of what may be driving the positions candidates are taking."

"The data show historic differences on issues that even a decade ago were more bipartisan — such as a 30 point difference between Democrats and Republicans on whether controlling or reducing illegal immigration should be a priority," said Dina Smeltz, senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Council. "In 2002, that difference was only five points, just one example of an issue on which we've seen increasing polarization over the years."

The results of the 2015 Chicago Council Survey demonstrate that, overall, the American public remains committed to engagement in the world: 64 percent of Americans support an active U.S. role in world affairs, and both Republicans and Democrats advocate a wide range of methods to realize U.S. foreign policy goals. Yet on specific issues, major partisan differences are clear:

Hard vs. Soft Power

  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that maintaining U.S. military superiority is a very effective approach to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals (50 percent of Republicans compared to 37 percent of Democrats). Republicans also are more likely to support the use of U.S. troops abroad to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons (81 percent of Republicans compared to 64 percent of Democrats), to fight Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria (66 percent to 58 percent) and to defend Israel if it comes under attack from its neighbors (67 percent to 49 percent). Those who identify with the GOP are also more likely than Democrats to favor keeping some U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 for training and counterterrorism (68 percent of Republicans to 51 percent of Democrats) and to support the United States training Ukrainian military troops (59 percent to 49 percent).
  • Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say that several tools of diplomacy are somewhat or very effective for achieving U.S. foreign policy goals, such as: strengthening the United Nations (78 percent of Democrats to 45 percent of Republicans), engaging in high-level diplomatic visits (74 percent to 45 percent), international treaties (77 percent to 59 percent), signing free-trade agreements (77 percent to 56 percent) and providing economic aid to other countries (70 percent to 50 percent).


  • Reflecting the current divisive debate on immigration, differences of opinion between Republicans and Democrats reached record levels this year. Sixty-six percent of Republicans believe controlling and reducing illegal immigration is a very important goal, compared to only 36 percent of Democrats. In 2002, the distance between the two parties was only five points.
  • A similar gap has emerged between Republicans and Democrats when asked whether large numbers of immigrants and refugees entering the United States is a critical threat. Today, Republicans are 34 percentage points more likely than Democrats to label the issue as a critical threat, well outpacing a partisan gap of five points in 2002.

Climate Change

Climate change is the most polarizing global issue to emerge in the 2015 Chicago Council Survey of American public opinion.

  • Democrats see climate change as one of the top five most critical threats facing the United States (58 percent critical threat), while Republicans rank it last out of 20 possible threats (17 percent critical threat).
  • A majority of Democrats (56 percent) believe climate change deserves immediate action, while Republicans remain divided evenly between those who see climate change as a problem to be addressed gradually (43 percent) and those who question whether it is really a problem (44 percent).

Israel and the Palestinians

  • A solid majority (61 percent) of Republicans believe Israel has played a somewhat or very positive role in resolving problems in the Middle East. Fewer than half (41 percent) of Democrats feel the same.
  • Previously, both parties were internally divided about supporting an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While Republicans remain divided (46 support and 45 percent oppose), today's Democrats support the idea (61 percent support).

The survey also covers American views on issues such as Iran, Cuba, ISIS, Russia, China and North Korea, including:

  • Iran: A majority of Republicans (53 percent) support sending U.S. troops to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities if Iran violates the nuclear agreement, compared to only 44 percent of Democrats.
  • Cuba: Two in three Americans (67 percent) support the United States ending the trade embargo with Cuba. Support for ending the embargo is bipartisan, with majorities of Democrats (79 percent), Republicans (59 percent) and Independents (63 percent) all in favor of lifting the ban on U.S. trade with Cuba.
  • ISIS: Coinciding with the rise of the Islamic State and continued threat from related groups in the Middle East, public concern about Islamic fundamentalism has increased 15 percentage points since 2014 (to 55 percent viewing it as a critical threat now), the highest level since 2002 survey results.
  • Russia/Ukraine: Americans, regardless of political affiliation, oppose direct U.S. military involvement in the conflict in Ukraine: No more than one-third favor using U.S. troops if Russia invades the rest of Ukraine. In contrast, nearly half of Democrats and Republicans and 4 in 10 Independents would support using U.S. troops if Russia invaded a NATO ally such as Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.
  • China: Only 41 percent of Americans see the development of China's military power as a "critical threat."
  • North Korea: Perhaps as part of a continued hedge against China as well as North Korea, a majority of Americans (64 percent) continue to support maintaining the U.S. military presence in Asia at its current levels. But in a hypothetical situation where North Korea attacks South Korea, less than half (47 percent) of Americans support using troops to come to the aid of South Korea, though this share has increased over time. The same is true should North Korea attack Japan, a scenario in which 48 percent of the U.S. public would support the use of U.S. troops.

View and Download Full Report: 2015 Chicago Council Survey
View and Download Images and Figures: 2015 Chicago Council Survey Images

Watch the Launch

On September 16 at 12 p.m. EST, watch the live stream of a discussion of the political implications of the 2015 Chicago Council Survey results at an event featuring POLITICO editor Susan Glasser, Chicago Council president Ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, Dina Smeltz, senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at The Chicago Council and Michael Crowley, senior foreign correspondent at POLITICO.

About the Chicago Council Survey

The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2015 Chicago Council Survey of the American public on foreign policy. The 2015 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, probability-based nationwide online research KnowledgePanel between May 25 and June 17, 2015 among a national sample of 2,034 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error ranges from ± 2.2 to ± 3.1 percentage points depending on the specific question, with higher margins of error for partisan subgroups.

The 2015 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the United States-Japan Foundation and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown family.

About The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, founded in 1922, is an independent, non-partisan organization committed to educating the public — and influencing the public discourse — on global issues of the day. The Council provides a forum in Chicago for world leaders, policymakers and other experts to speak to its members and the public on these issues. Long known for its public opinion surveys of American views on foreign policy, The Chicago Council also brings together stakeholders to examine issues and offer policy insight into areas such as global agriculture, the global economy, global energy, global cities, global security and global immigration. Learn more at and follow @ChicagoCouncil for updates.


Contact Data