As Democrats and Republicans Switch Roles on Foreign Policy, Independents Embrace Syria Withdrawal

President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan has earned him mixed reactions from members of both parties. Longtime critics of the deployment like Sen. Rand Paul praised the decision, as did more progressive Democrats including Rep. Ro Khanna. The decision wasn’t without its share of criticism from leaders in both parties however. The reliably hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham called Trump’s withdrawal decision “a huge, Obama-like mistake,”, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said withdrawal was “premature”.

A comprehensive poll by Morning Consult/Politico reveals just how much of an identity crisis the Democratic and Republican parties are experiencing, as they struggle to differentiate themselves on foreign policy. The poll asked voters to indicate support or opposition for the withdrawal in the following question: “As you may know, President Trump ordered an immediate withdrawal of more than 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Based on what you know, do you support or oppose President Trump’s decision?” In response, 73% of Republicans expressed support for the withdrawal, compared to just 29% of Democrats, as shown below.

Morning Consult/Politico
Morning Consult/Politico

This somewhat awkward realignment of foreign policy priorities is likely due at least in part to the polarizing nature of President Trump himself. A case could be made that a majority of Republicans would support his actions no matter what, and a majority of Democrats would oppose his actions no matter what. One can’t help but wonder what the partisan split would have been in response to a similarly worded question without any reference Trump.

While the GOP decides between the hawkish inclinations of stalwarts like Lindsey Graham and contradicting the President, Democrats are faced with the precarious choice of doubling-down on a peace message or embracing indefinite foreign occupation to maintain opposition to Trump. Beneath that layer of identity politics, there is a significant segment of independent and low-propensity voters who strongly support Trump’s actions on Syria. Overall, 44% of Independents support withdrawal, compared to just 30% who oppose it.

One of the most notable takeaways from the poll is the strong correlation between support for the withdrawal, and a reluctance to vote within either of the two major parties, or at all.

  • Thirty-eight percent of those who didn’t support Trump or Clinton in 2016 but cast a ballot for another candidate support withdrawal, versus 36% who oppose it.
  • Forty-one percent of those who didn’t vote at all in 2016 support withdrawal, versus just 21% who oppose it.
  • Fifty-four percent of those who didn’t support Romney or Obama in 2012 but cast a ballot for another candidate, support withdrawal versus just 20% who oppose it.
  • Forty-seven percent of those who didn’t vote at all in 2012 support withdrawal, versus just 22% who oppose it.
Morning Consult/Politico
Morning Consult/Politico

These voters will play a pivotal role in 2020 – if they vote. While third-party voters and low-propensity voters are inherently more difficult to engage because of sparse, inconsistent, or nonexistent voter history data, it is clear that there is a significant share of Americas who have been dissatisfied with their ballot options for several election cycles. The majority of these citizens want to see a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy agenda, regardless of, or perhaps because of, President Trump’s recent actions in Syria.

These findings lead to a series of questions that will require further investigation. Who is the average withdrawal-friendly nonvoter or third-party voter? How important of a priority is a scaled down international presence to these voters? Are they one-issue voters who rejected Romney and Obama and later Clinton and Trump predominantly because of their foreign policy stances at that time, or is foreign policy merely one issue among many that separate them from the two-party system? In light of their support for President Trump’s withdrawal now, will anything change as we head into the 2020 election? Market Research Foundation is continuing to research these questions to better understand the motivations of Americans who feel strongly about a less interventionist U.S. military but are wary of the two-party system.