How to Take Polls on Foreign Policy

American voters are often accused of prioritizing domestic policy over overseas concerns. A leading pollster weighs in.

Foreign policy is important to the American voter. But so is putting food on the table, getting the kids off to school on time, figuring out how to pay for college (or whether to bother), and worrying that a Social Security check just won’t be there. There is a simple reason why pollsters don’t ask questions about foreign policy on exit polls—and it’s not laziness on our part but rather that other larger anxieties seem to push overseas concerns out of the way.

As a former teacher, I can attest that geography is not a strong suit for the splendidly isolated American people. Most Americans cannot name five provinces in Canada or five states in Mexico. I know, I have asked. (And before I did, I made sure I memorized them all myself). If we don’t know much about our neighbors, we can hardly be expected to discuss the Golan Heights and crises in the Caucases with any degree of comfort at the hairdresser or around the water cooler.

But there is a difference between knowledge and sensibility—and voters don’t need a lot of the former to have a lot of the latter. This reliance on a broader sensibility makes it hard to discern what is motivating a voter on a given issue.

The public cares about the quality of products made in China and, for that matter, the fact that they are made there. Is that a consumer-safety issue, an economic issue or a foreign-policy issue?

Voters tell us that they care deeply about the Middle East. But is that faith-based, human-rights focused or cultural affinity? I can ask a poll question about Bashar al-Assad, and a solid majority will agree that he is a murderer who must resign or be removed. That is a human reaction, pure and simple. I am not sure there is sufficient public will to involve American firepower or manpower, which spills over into concerns about deficits, military overload and the proper role of America in the world.

So Americans do indeed care about foreign policy, but it often gets bunched in with other pressing concerns. And unless foreign policy becomes the overwhelmingly dominant concern (think Vietnam, Iraq or 9/11), it is not often the issue that presses people’s buttons. Ultimately, those hot-button issues come down to bread and butter and a voter’s larger anxieties about values and economic prospects.

I believe that each election is dominated by one big umbrella issue under which a lot of other important concerns lie. Sometimes it is crime, health care or education—and often it is the economy or war. But regardless of what defines this big umbrella, that issue has a way of expressing all the other top concerns.

In 1994, when the dominant concern was crime and the death penalty, voters were also telling us that their way of life was being threatened and that they feared for their status. The same held true in 1968 about the war in Vietnam and in 1972 about crime and the counterculture. When voters single out an issue, they are talking about a large category that includes the current threat to their values, sense of security and social status.

Today, the large umbrella issue may be the economy. Inside the Beltway, there is too often an attempt to portray the mass of voters as ignorant and unaware of context. But when voters speak as a whole in an election or public-opinion poll, there is always a message that transcends the simple sum of the parts. It may be expressed in short bytes—not white papers—but the message is always clear. Not many Americans can disaggregate the details of the Greek debt crisis, the many faces and details of Islamists in Egypt, the amount of debt owed to China or the current price per barrel of oil. But voters do sense that these are important issues and express this most often in broad terms.

Why don’t pollsters ask about the importance of foreign policy in exit polls? It’s not because we can’t, and it doesn’t indicate that these issues are not important. Questions about America’s role in the world in fact loom so large that they insinuate themselves into many other concerns. Pollsters don’t ask about foreign policy issues because we don’t need to.

John Zogby, founder of the Zogby Poll, is senior adviser at JZ Analytics, a polling firm directed by his son, Jonathan. He is the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream. His columns appear weekly at Forbes.com, The Daily and the Washington Times.

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