If you follow the news, you know that there are few if any stories bigger Saudi Arabia’s killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a legal U.S. resident, and President Trump’s unwillingness to hold the kingdom’s top leaders accountable – at least according to America’s tightly intertwined national political classes and Mainstream Media.
At the same time, if anything’s clear from recent domestic political trends – especially the rise of populism – it’s that the priorities of these national elites and the general public don’t always coincide. And the polling on this issue makes pretty clear that the Khashoggi killing and the Trump reaction is one of those instances.
The sample size isn’t big (three surveys) and all of them predate Mr. Trump’s full, November 20 explanation of his final decision on Khashoggi and his Saudi policy. But none point to reactions that would even come close to justifying the amount of time and space being devoted to the issue by the political and media kingpins.
Two of the polls came out on October 24. The first, by Rasmussen, found that by a 57 percent to 33 percent margin, “likely U.S. voters” believed that Khashoggi’s (then) “disappearance and suspected murder was “important to U.S. national security. Eleven percent were undecided. Those results don’t exactly indicate the peasants were reaching for their pitchforks. Nor does the fact that 68 percent of those likely voters favored American sanctions on Saudi Arabia if the monarchy’s involvement was “proven.” After all, “sanctions” can encompass a wide range of measures.
That same day, an Axios/Survey Monkey sounding reported that 56 percent of U.S. adults polled considered the President’s “response to Saudi Arabia for the Khashoggi murder” as “not tough enough.” Just under a third viewed it as “about right” and five percent deemed it “too tough.”
Repeating a pattern often found in recent polling, opinion was sharply divided along partisan lines. A much higher share of Democrats (78 percent) than Republicans (37 percent) chose the “not tough enough” answer. Independents fell right in the middle, with “not tough enough” prevailing in their ranks by 55 percent to 32 percent.
Somewhat different results came from a posting in The Hill newspaper from a survey it conducted along with the Harris organization. Their poll found that by a 49 percent to 29 percent margin, “registered voters” favored waiting on anti-Saudi sanctions until after an independent investigation determines if the Saudi Arabian government is responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi” rather than impose such measures beforehand. And 16 percent of respondents said that the United States “should not be involved in the matter.”
Nonetheless, the partisan split story remained intact, with many more Democrats (38 percent) than Republicans (20 percent) favoring “sanctions now” and somewhat more Republicans (57 percent) than Democrats (46 percent) wanting an investigation first. Twenty eight percent of independents supported sanctions before an investigation whereas 45 percent wanted to wait.
In fact, the partisan split results lend some credence to the proposition (believed by yours truly), that views of the Khashoggi murder and the best U.S. response reveal more about Americans’ views of Mr. Trump than anything else. That is, if you generally like the President or his job performance, you’re likely to at least cut him some slack on Saudi policy, and make the point to a pollster; if you don’t, you’re not.
Some more evidence for this belief: In the Hill/Harris poll, independents were significantly more likely (22 percent) than either Republicans (16 percent) or Democrats (11 percent) to back American non-involvement in the Khashoggi affair.
All of this might change when we start getting polls based on research following the President’s big Khashoggi statement – which represented an unusually blunt, arguably narrow, and arguably cockeyed, version of realpolitik. But overall the strongest reason for concluding that this issue doesn’t – and won’t – mean remotely as much outside elite political and media circles as inside is probably this Axios/Survey Monkey finding: Only four percent of their respondents considered foreign policy “their top issue.” As I’ve repeatedly written, that’s also a leading sign of the public’s superior common sense.