WASHINGTON — The American public is fiercely divided heading into the Nov. 8 election, but on the question of what the nation's top national security priority should be, opinion is united, according to a new poll: Job one is defeating the Islamic State group.
In fact, the public is so unified that most voters in both parties want Washington and Moscow to put aside their differences and team up against the group. This is according to a national University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll of 1,528 registered voters, conducted by Nielsen-Scarborough and released Nov. 1.
Whether the Islamic State is an existential threat and therefore worth the effort is debatable. Robert McKenzie, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in US relations with the Islamic World, noted in a recent report that the FBI has labeled or charged only about 1,300 individuals as sympathizers with Islamic terrorist groups. For comparison, law enforcement officials estimate more than 1.4 million Americans are affiliated with criminal gangs.
"Since September 11, 94 individuals have died at the hands of Sunni Muslim terrorists," he said at a think tank event on Nov. 1. "Around 50 have died at the hands of white extremists. If you ask Muslims across the country, they ask, 'Why is there so much attention on this?'"
McKenzie argued that both major party candidates have played up the threat too much, but acknowledged the political risks of appearing soft on terrorism makes addressing the issue problematic.
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Nonetheless, 53 percent of the UMD poll respondents made the war on the Islamic State the nation's top global priority, with immigration second. Russia took 14 percent and China 11 percent, while al-Qaeda, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all polled at single digits. Relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Libyan civil war and the Yemeni civil war were all blips.
"If you look at domestic policy, the things that Republicans and Democrats think are important are in almost complete disjoint—in foreign policy, that is not true," William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who served in Bill Clinton's administration, said at an event for the poll's release Nov. 1. "Democrats and Republicans name the same priorities in the same order."
Terrorism, immigration and trade are the top priorities because they affect the American public directly, and are considered to fall equally in the foreign- and domestic-policy camps, Galston said. The hot-button nature of these issues — and a Syrian intervention in particular — will present a unique conundrum for either of the major party candidates, hawkish Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump.
"If Mr. Trump is elected president of the United States, he will face very strong pressure from his base to intervene militarily, even if he doesn’t want to," Galson said. "If former Secretary of State Clinton is the next president, she will face very strong resistance from her base against intervention, even if she wants to intensify it."
Overall, voters were split roughly down the middle about whether the Islamic State was "such an existential threat that it warrants huge investment in lives and treasure," and that the degree of US commitment needed to be weighed carefully. Within that split, 65 percent of Democrats agreed, with 58 percent of Independents, versus 36 percent of Republicans.
But asked another way, whether "ISIS is the top threat and could become an existential threat" and whether "the US should spare no effort in assuring it's destroyed," 73 percent of respondents agreed. Of Republicans, 83 percent agreed, 72 percent of Independents agreed, and Democrats were the least comfortable, at 64 percent.
On whether the US should deploy a large ground force, 77 percent of Democrats said 'no,' backed by 71 percent of Independents, while 51 percent of Republicans said yes. Large majorities of all stripes believed that another group would emerge if US troops were to withdraw.
Though Republicans outnumbered Democrats in wanting to see more US military involvement of some sort, 42 percent in total said the present US commitment was less than what they would like to see. Thirty-four percent said it was more than they wanted to see, with the highest proportion of Independents — 45 percent — wanting less involvement.
By candidate, 61 percent of Trump supporters felt there was less military involvement in Syria than they wanted to see, versus 31 percent of Clinton supporters.
Most Democrats, 54 percent, tended to be more comfortable with aiding Syrian rebels and the need for proxy forces to fight the Islamic State, Syrian government forces and external backers like Iran and Hezbollah—as long as the aid would not fall into enemy hands. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans felt the other way about it, supporting the argument those groups could come back to haunt the US.
Only about a third of respondents thought the military objective should be include ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad, while more than half said job one is defeating the Islamic State. Assad is backed by Moscow, while the US backs Syrian rebels.
After describing the fact that the United States and Russia support opposite sides of the Syrian conflict while both also want to defeat the Islamic State, respondents were asked about the best path to defeat the group.
Sixty-seven percent of Republican and Independent respondents favored a team-up with Russia against the Islamic State. Proportionally fewer Democrats, 53 percent, liked that idea. Still, more than 60 percent in all categories said there was less Russian-American cooperation than they wanted to see.
It's not that all voters like Russian President Vladimir Putin. For Democrats, he was the most disliked world leader, ahead of North Korean dictators Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il, who together came in fourth of five. For Republicans, Putin came in last, with President Obama as their most disliked.
Military Times Capitol Hill bureau chief Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.