Written By Eoin Sheehan

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Good Thursday Afternoon,

In this week’s issue of Magnified, we examine the prominence foreign policy issues are likely to play in the 2024 US Presidential Election campaign amid an increasingly tense global situation.

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Westminster Insights

Westminster Voting Intention (7 January):

Labour 43% (+1)
Conservative 27% (+3)
Reform UK 11% (+1)
Liberal Democrat 10% (-1)
Green 5% (-1)
Scottish National Party 3% (-1)
Other 2% (–)

Changes +/- 17 December

Combined Net Approval Ratings (7 January):

Keir Starmer: +18% (+14)
Rishi Sunak: -15% (+4)

Changes +/- 17 December

In competing events last Thursday, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer fired the starting gun on this election year.

While neither made any splashy policy announcements, the major headline was created by Rishi Sunak, who told broadcasters that it is his “working assumption” that the General Election will be held in the second half of this year. Among political pundits, this comment has been taken to mean an election in October or November, rather than in May as had been speculated.

Given the state of the polls, Sunak can be forgiven for wanting to give his party as much time as possible to try and affect what would be a Lazarus-like recovery.

Our first Westminster Voting Intention poll of 2024 finds Labour 16% ahead of the Conservatives (43% vs 27%), while Keir Starmer is now fifteen points clear of Rishi Sunak (45% vs 30%) as the person Britons think would be the better Prime Minister at this moment.  

Ominously for the Government, our latest poll illustrates the growing danger the party now faces from Reform UK on its right, with this week’s poll placing Reform (11%) in third place for the first time

Altogether, 15% of 2019 Conservative voters now say they would vote for Reform UK if an election were held tomorrow, while another 15% would vote for Labour, underscoring the enormous challenge the Prime Minister faces in trying to recreate his party’s varied electoral coalition from 2019.

As it is, the immediate challenge for Sunak in the coming weeks will be to maintain his party’s unity in the face of a divisive vote on new licensing laws for oil and gas exploration, and the potentially explosive vote on the third reading of the Rwanda Bill.

In addition, the resignation of Chris Skidmore sets up yet another by-election in which the Conservatives will be on the defensive, in addition to the pending vote in Wellingborough triggered by the removal of the former Conservative MP Peter Bone.

Long Exposure In-Depth Analysis

Foreign Policy and the 2024 US Presidential Election

The 2020 Presidential Election was decidedly not a foreign policy election. 

In pre-election polls taken in September and October of 2020, only somewhere between 2% and 4% of American voters cited foreign policy as one of the key policy areas that was most likely to determine how they would vote.

So dominated was that campaign by the coronavirus pandemic that President Trump’s illness resulted in the cancellation of the second debate and the subsequent exclusion of foreign policy as a debate topic altogether.

In the years since then, however, the global situation has become much more disordered, beginning with America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, ramping up a notch with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and culminating most recently with the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. Growing anxieties about Chinese designs on Taiwan, meanwhile, have continued to lurk in the background.

The Biden Administration’s response to all these events has been mixed. 

It is true that, even after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, more Americans generally supported than opposed the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. And in March 2023, a year into the war in Ukraine, and after providing tens of billions of dollars in aid, a majority of Americans said they supported President Biden’s response to Russia’s invasion of the country.

But the sense that the world beyond America’s borders is becoming increasingly chaotic and that America’s position as the global hegemon is increasingly under challenge has had a sobering effect on the public’s perceptions of Biden’s foreign policy achievements. 

In a poll of 6,029 voters in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania taken in late December, pluralities of voters in every state polled said they disapprove of the Administration’s performance on foreign policy. The highest net approval rating the Administration scores on foreign policy in any of the states polled is a lowly -10% in Florida.

Even among Biden’s own voters approval is lukewarm. Although majorities of Biden 2020 voters in all six states approve of the Administration’s performance on foreign policy, a not insignificant minority of between 11% and 19% disapprove.

Now, as America enters a Presidential Election year, the international situation is more febrile than at any point since the end of the Cold War. And in Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Americans will be presented with two leaders with very different visions of how American power can and should be projected around the world.

Take the War in Ukraine. 

The President has made supporting Ukraine a centrepiece of his foreign policy vision, arguing—as he did following a meeting with President Zelensky in December—that “Ukraine’s success and its ability to deter aggression in the future are vital to security for the world at large.” For Biden, supporting Ukraine is both a moral imperative (standing with ‘Good’ Ukraine versus ‘Evil’ Russia) and a national security necessity.

And in contrast to its dismal overall approval on foreign policy in general, the US Government earns positive net approval ratings for its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from voters in all six swing states, with net approval ranging from +4% (North Carolina) to as high as +8% (Pennsylvania).

But for Donald Trump, the Ukrainian conflict does not hold the same significance to America’s national interest, nor does it present the same moral challenge as it does for Biden.

Instead, reflecting his often transactional view of America’s foreign relations as being built on the personal chemistry he has developed with other world leaders, Trump in September said, “I would say certain things to Putin. I would say certain things to Zelenskyy, both of whom I get along [with]” and that, consequently, he would have the war over “in 24 hours.”

For Trump, as the former President told CNN in May, the priority is not necessarily to ensure Ukraine wins, but rather to ensure that “everybody [stops] dying. They’re dying. Russians and Ukrainians. I want them to stop dying.”

Many Americans might be persuaded by the moral force of Biden’s argument for supporting Ukraine, but they are increasingly downbeat about its chances of victory.

One nationwide poll in mid-December found that 41% of Americans now think the US should press for peace, even if it means Ukraine does not regain all of its pre-war territory, a view against which just 29% disagree. In this light, Trump’s pledge to deliver peace within 24 hours may sound attractive.

Perhaps more significantly for the election campaign, Trump and other Republicans have argued that the President’s focus on securing further billions for Ukraine (on top of the more than €70 billion delivered to date) is distracting from more immediate challenges at home. Before Christmas, Republicans in Congress made further aid to Ukraine conditional on changes to immigration and border policy that were anathema to Democrats, scuppering any chance of an agreement.

The gridlock over Ukraine funding in Washington comes as many American voters (most notably Republican ones) have become increasingly sceptical of continued, open-ended funding for Ukraine.

At present, while majorities orpluralities of voters in all six states we polled believe the US has provided Ukraine with either the right amount of support (26%-31%) or too little support (18%-21%) to date, majorities or pluralities of Trump 2020 voters in all six states now believe the US has provided Ukraine with too much support (43%-52%).

Looking ahead, the same dynamic is evident with regard to the desired future volume of US support to Ukraine, with a large partisan split on the preferred course of action going forward.

While majorities of Biden 2020 voters in all six states polled think the US should maintain or increase the amount of financial and military aid it is giving Ukraine, majorities of Trump 2020 voters in Pennsylvania (57%) and Arizona (54%) and pluralities in the other four states think the amount of aid the US provides to Ukraine should decrease.

Consequently, the coming election offers a clear choice between competing visions of Ukraine policy: A vote for a Biden second-term will be a vote to continue the current policy of generous aid to Ukraine and possibly a longer war, while a Trump second term is a vote for a different strategy altogether, whose focus will be on ending the war first and foremost.

Overall, many voters appear to be siding with Trump, with the former President holding leads over Joe Biden as the person more trusted by swing state voters on the War in Ukraine by margins of anywhere from between 1% and 11%.

While the political row over continued aid to Ukraine largely breaks down along partisan lines, the same dynamic is not true when it comes to the on-going war in Israel-Palestine, where the tension is primarily reflected internally within the Democratic party.

It should be noted, American voters narrowly approve of the President’s response to the war in Israel-Palestine. A nationwide poll on 8 December found that 39% of Americans approved and 33% disapproved of how  President Biden has responded to the war. Among the President’s own voters in 2020, 64% approved of his response to the conflict, while just 13% disapproved.

However, the United States’ response to the conflict may risk alienating younger voters, 39% of whom say they feel ‘very strongly’ sympathetic towards the Palestinian side, against only 14% of those aged 59+. While 55% of those aged 59+ said they were ‘very strongly’ sympathetic to the Israeli side in early December, the number of those aged 18-26 saying they had the same depth of sympathy for the Israeli side was only 24%.

And digging through state-by-state polling reveals the divisions among and between Democratic voters on the conflict that risks creating an electoral headache for the President in November.

In our December swing states poll, while pluralities of 2020 Biden voters think the US has provided Israel with the right amount of support thus far, as many as 32% of Biden voters in Michigan (and between 18% and 29% in the other states polled) think the US has provided the country with too much support. Alternatively, between 10% and 20% of Democratic voters in these states believe the US has provided too little support to Israel, reflecting the wide array of conflicting views Democrats hold on the conflict.

A similar range of views are presented when Biden 2020 voters are asked about the future of aid to Israel, with pluralities in all six states saying the current level of financial and military support to the country should be maintained, while not insignificant minorities think aid should either decrease (23%-31%) or increase (10%-18%). 

The divergent views among Democrats on the Administration’s approach to the war therefore poses a severe risk of fracturing the electoral coalition Biden will need for victory. 

This risk is especially present in key swing states such as Michigan, a state where the Arab-American population (circa 275,000) is almost double President Biden’s margin of victory in the state in 2020 (154,000).

In late November, the President’s overall net approval rating with all Michigan voters for his response to the war stood at -18%, while more than a quarter (28%) of 2020 Biden voters said they disapproved of how the president had responded to the war.

If even a small number of these voters stay at home or vote for third party candidates who are actively courting their vote over disaffection with the Administration’s Israel policy, Biden’s chances of winning this key state could be in serious jeopardy.

Given that voters in Michigan (as well as in all the other swing states) are already more likely to trust Trump than Biden on the conflict, the failure of US diplomacy to bring an end to the fighting risks creating an open electoral wound for the President that could drag on for months.

Looming over all of the White House’s immediate concerns about Ukraine and the Middle East, however, is China. 

To date, the Biden Administration’s performance on China, which has largely been an attempt at the continuation of Donald Trump’s hardline stance, has earned consistently negative reviews from voters.

Not once have more Americans approved then disapproved of the Biden Administration’s performance on relations with China in our polling, with the Administration’s most recent net approval rating on the issue standing at -15% in late October.

And despite a purportedly tension-easing meeting between President’s Biden and Xi in San Francisco in November, a plurality of Americans (38%) still see China as the country which represents the US’s greatest threat, notwithstanding fears over Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

To meet the challenge from China, Donald Trump has promised greater strength and toughness. And indeed, in late November, majorities of voters in all of the six swing states we polled associated Trump, rather than Biden, with being ‘tough on China,’ as was also the case throughout the 2020 Presidential Election.

How might that posture be tested if tensions were to ramp up over Taiwan in 2024? President Biden has insisted in the past that the US would defend Taiwan militarily to resist a Chinese invasion, while Trump has been more coy on the subject

Polling last April found a majority (56%) of Americans would support US intervention in a cross-strait crisis, with only 12% disapproving.

Even so, to talk about being ‘tough’ on China/Iran/Russia (delete as appropriate) is to miss the point.

At the core of discussions of foreign affairs in US Elections is an American belief that the words and actions of the United States and its leadership are a primary factor driving events abroad. Whether good or bad things happen elsewhere in the world are often seen to reflect a success or failing on the part of America and its leadership.

Hence, in the aftermath of Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel on 7 October, Republicans lined up to blame the Biden Administration’s Iran policy for emboldening Hamas. A similar dynamic was at work in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Indeed, Donald Trump himself has mused that neither conflict would have happened if he was still President. If Donald Trump had been in office, and President Putin or Hamas knew he would deliver a ‘tough’ response, so the argument goes, neither conflict would have occurred—an argument which many swing state voters agree with when it comes to Ukraine, but disagree with when it comes to Israel-Palestine.

How the international situation develops with regard to these three arenas of conflict will have a decisive impact on the US Presidential Election.

With Biden’s approval rating on foreign policy in the negative and Trump more trusted than Biden on Ukraine, Israel, and China, Donald Trump leads Joe Biden in all six swing states polled and even for the national popular vote. If, however, President Biden and the Democrats are able to claim a foreign policy success between now and November, they may be able to turn around this polling outlook. 

But success or failure abroad is not entirely in their control. It never truly is, and leaders abroad—both foes and allies—will undoubtedly calculate some of their decisionmaking in 2024 according to the election result that they may desire.

We have a long, dramatic year ahead.

Hire Us: If you are a business, campaign, or research organisation looking to expand your understanding of public opinion, Redfield & Wilton Strategies has the tools to help. Get in touch to find out more.

R&WS in the Media

Each week we bring you the top stories from the media that have featured our research.

Poll shows Reform UK in third on 11% in blow for Rishi Sunak
The Daily Mail | 9 January 2024

Trump’s leads over Biden in key swing states narrow: Survey
The Hill | 8 January 2024

Pain for Rishi Sunak as by-election confirmed and Reform rises in poll
The Herald | 8 January 2024

New Telegraph poll reveals weariness over US military support to Ukraine
The Telegraph | 6 January 2024

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