Welcome to Poll Watch, our weekly look at polling data and survey research on the candidates, voters and issues that will shape the 2020 election.
As a presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump pledged that he would maintain the United States’ leverage abroad by committing to an approach of “unpredictability.”
As president, he has been nothing if not unpredictable.
Never was this more clear than last week, when Mr. Trump ordered the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the powerful Iranian commander and one of that country’s most important figures. The move left even many of the president’s own advisers stunned, escalated tensions between the two countries and seemed to raise the possibility of outright war — though a broader conflict appears to have been averted for the time being.
No major polls on the topic have been conducted since General Suleimani’s killing, but a look at the public opinion data that’s available suggests that Americans are eager to avoid further conflict in the Middle East. And even before the most recent confrontation, Mr. Trump’s appreciation for entropy had done little to reassure them.
A University of Maryland poll in September found that, by a 35-point margin, Americans thought the odds of the United States going to war with Iran had gone up in the three years since Mr. Trump’s election. Americans across party lines did not think a war with Iran would be warranted, according to the poll.
In a Gallup poll last summer, 65 percent of Americans said they were concerned that the United States might be too hasty in using military force to confront Iran. By a gaping 60-point margin, respondents were more likely to say they would prefer the United States take a diplomatic approach to discouraging Iranian nuclearization, rather than a military one.
“The public is and has long said that diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace,” Jocelyn Kiley, an analyst at Pew Research Center, said in an interview. “That really hasn’t fundamentally changed over the past 25 years or so.” In a September Pew survey, close to three quarters of Americans said diplomacy is generally a surer way to guarantee peace than displaying military strength.
While he has expressed support for extricating American troops from the Middle East — vowing to stop endless wars — Mr. Trump has made it clear that he prefers to use military might, rather than cooperation with traditional allies, to gain the upper hand. “By removing Suleimani,” he declared in a speech at the White House on Wednesday, “we have sent a powerful message to terrorists: If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people.”
In those remarks, Mr. Trump urged America’s allies to step away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal that former President Barack Obama brokered in 2015 to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. Mr. Trump abandoned the agreement in 2018, although it was broadly popular: A CNN poll then found that 63 percent of Americans said the United States should stick with the pact, while just 29 percent wanted to abandon it — results that align with the public’s overall preference for diplomacy.
The president’s own party was the outlier: A slim majority of Republicans wanted to quit the deal — which is closely associated with Mr. Obama’s legacy.
All of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have said they would seek to restore it.
Whatever their feelings on diplomacy, most Americans share a generalized anxiety about Mr. Trump’s approach to steering the country. A Pew poll this summer found that 56 percent of respondents were skeptical about his ability to handle the situation with Iran, and roughly the same amount said they were not confident in his overall ability to use military force wisely.
The public’s aversion to a possible war with Iran cannot be separated from the country’s growing fatigue over the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly three in five respondents to a Pew poll last spring said that the wars in both of those countries had not been worth fighting.
“When it comes to the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we saw majority support at the outset, and a decline in support over time,” Ms. Kiley said.
The administration has offered nonspecific and conflicting rationales for Mr. Trump’s decision to kill General Suleimani, but in his remarks on Wednesday he linked it to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, and also accused Iran’s leaders of sponsoring terrorism. He argued that the strike on General Suleimani was warranted in order to protect America from future attacks.
Polls suggest these could be winning arguments.
Pew data collected in 2018 show that a wide majority of Americans — 72 percent — think that protecting the country from terrorism should be a top foreign-policy priority, and about two-thirds said the same thing about preventing the development of major warheads abroad.
And while Americans generally favor diplomacy over force, three in five registered voters nationwide said in a Fox News poll this summer that they would support taking military action if it was needed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.