Commentary: The World is Watching

Oct 23, 2012

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney meet in their third and final presidential election debate October 22. The topic will be foreign policy. Sparks will fly: over the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya; over what to do about the Iranian nuclear program and over China. Debating points will likely be scored and lost. But the impact on the ultimate outcome of the election is doubtful. American voters have been clear all year: few believe that international concerns are the most important problems facing the country in the run up to the November 6 election. And most favor focusing attention on domestic rather than foreign challenges.

Nevertheless, the American public has definite views on international issues. And there are some sharp differences between Republican and Democratic voters. So, while political pundits generally agree that there are no great substantive differences between the two candidates on most foreign policy matters, Obama and Romney may draw what distinctions they can in the debate to reap whatever electoral gain is available.

The Libya attack—which resulted in the deaths of four Americans—is sure to be a highly contentious topic, as it was briefly in the second debate on October 16. It promises to be a wrangle about who is to blame for the tragedy. The public is evenly divided on the issue, with 35% approving the administration’s performance and 38% disapproving. And sentiment is sharply divided along partisan lines: 60% of Democrats approve of the administration’s handling of the tragedy, 73% of Republicans disapprove. But just 56% of the public say they are following the Benghazi investigations closely, an indicator that it may not affect many voters’ decisions.

Read the full report, The World is Watching, on the Pew Global Attitudes Project website.

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