Texas partisans' views of the U.S. role in the world illuminate the roiled politics of U.S. foreign policy

For the first time in a decade of polling, more Texans in the February 2024 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll agreed than disagreed that “This country would be better off if we just stayed home and did not concern ourselves with problems in other parts of the world." The poll found 48% of Texas voters agreeing with the statement as legislation that would provide military, economic, and humanitarian aid to countries including Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan remains stalled in Congress amidst divisions in both parties about U.S. spending priorities, particularly Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. Divergent attitudes among Texas partisans on the general idea of U.S. foreign policy and toward the countries involved largely align with the bitter divisions paralyzing Congress and pushing foreign policy issues into the 2024 presidential campaign.

The UT/TPP poll question, based on items used in national polling designed to gauge Texas voters’ general view of U.S. engagement with the world, has been included in 9 statewide surveys between October 2014 and February 2024. Among the nearly half of Texans who agreed with the statement that the U.S. would be better off if not engaged in global politics like the conflicts currently roiling Congress and the national election, 16% strongly agreed, 32% somewhat agreed, while 45% disagreed (23% strongly, 22% somewhat).

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Strongly agree16%
Somewhat agree32%
Somewhat disagree22%
Strongly disagree23%
Don't know/No opinion7%

Partisan views broadly align with politics playing out in Washington DC around foreign aid spending, and the broader national trajectory of increased skepticism toward international engagement within the Republican party. A clear majority of Republicans, 56%, agree with the sentiment that the U.S. would be better off staying out of world affairs, while a much smaller share, 39%, disagree. Among Democrats, a larger share disagreed with the statement, 56%,  than agreed (40%). Independents looked more like Republicans than like Democrats: 52% agreed with 36% disagreed. (Per usual Texas Politics Project practice, these are “true independents,” with partisan “leaners” counted among the party they expressed a lean toward in the survey). 

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Strongly agree16%17%16%
Somewhat agree24%35%40%
Somewhat disagree20%19%26%
Strongly disagree36%17%13%
Don't know/No opinion5%12%6%

The narrow plurality that in essence favors restrained global engagement by the U.S. caps an emerging trend in Texas responses that has become more pronounced in the last four polls going back to 2020.  As the graphic below illustrates, the share who disagreed with the statement, implying a general receptiveness to U.S. engagement in international affairs, stayed near or above 50% between October 2014 and February 2020, when it peaked at 54% disagreement, before declining to 45% in the latest poll. Agreement with the statement favoring U.S. restraint in international affairs increased fluctuated between 38% and 44% in the same period, then steadily increased until reaching a high of 48% for the time series in the the latest poll.

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Approve strongly4%1%14%
Approve somewhat20%22%35%
Neither approve nor disapprove24%31%20%
Disapprove somewhat23%20%14%
Disapprove strongly12%11%6%
Don't know17%15%12%

Looking at partisan responses over the 9 results over a span of just over a decade reveals how Republican views have steadily become less supportive of U.S. engagement. While the trend has been somewhat intermittent (as has been the inclusion of the question in the statewide poll), the shift in attitudes remains clear. In October 2014, more Republicans disagreed with the statement (52%) than agreed (44%). The two positions were effectively tied in June 2018. In three polls since April 2022, the share that agrees with what is essentially an anti-internationalist sentiment outweighs the share that disagrees by 13 percentage points or more, with a 17-point gap separating them in the most recent poll. 

Democratic views show no such change in direction and less stability over most of the decade, though February saw the biggest poll-to-poll shift in the time series. Disagreement with the more restrained sentiment among Democrats dropped from 65% to 56% since December 2022, and agreement increased dramatically, from 26% to 40% in the same period. This closing in the gap between the two positions may reflect the large amount of coverage of the multi-faceted debate over the combined foreign aid bill in Congress taking place during the data collection period, and the cross currents in Democratic views of Ukraine and Israel, which I return to below. (Future polling will be necessary to make a judgment about how permanent this shift will be going forward, and/or whether this result was an outlier.)

The failure of the “grand bargain” foreign policy bill in the U.S. Senate earlier this month, which attempted to combine measures aimed at restricting foreign migration to the U.S. and increased border security funding (broadly speaking) with foreign aid spending for Ukraine, Israel, and East Asia, exposed how already strong cross-currents in foreign policy attitudes in the U.S. are manifest in Congress, and being further roiled by presidential election politics. The subsequent passage of legislation by the Senate that set aside border spending and immigration policy changes has been declared dead on arrival by the House Republican leadership. Consistent with his track record on foreign spending and particularly US alliances in Europe, Donald Trump has thus far successfully torpedoed these efforts, too. 

Trump’s influence over the last decade has likely influenced the activation and spread of resistance to an engaged U.S. foreign policy in line with, broadly speaking, post-World War II commitments centered around internationalism and the active global projection of U.S. military and economic power. But some of the shifting attitudes evident in polling data likely also reflect different partisan views of the issues and countries that have been the focus of the hard fought battle in Congress and in election politics this year.

Donald Trump’s influence

Former president Donald Trump, now the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has strong-armed Republican members of Congress into opposing both border security legislation and aid to Ukraine. Trump’s opposition to the Republican-tilted border bill fueled the collapse in GOP support for the bill in the Senate, and he continues to amplify Republican opposition to follow-up efforts to pass legislation focused on Ukraine, Israel, and East Asia. His influence over Republican members of Congress is on full display in the efforts of otherwise hawkish Republicans to rationalize his recent provocative statements suggesting the U.S. would not meet NATO treaty commitments in response to Russian military action against NATO members who, in Trump’s estimation, have not met their financial commitments to the mutual defense organization.  

Support for Trump among Texas Republican voters certainly strengthens GOP members’ tendency to see their electoral fates as tied to his, and to follow his lead on foreign policy issues in a presidential election year. Between 76% and 86% of Republican voters have expressed favorable views since he left the White House, seemingly largely unfazed by his various legal troubles. In February, with his status as the GOP Presidential nominee all but assured, 83% of Texas Republican voters held a favorable view of him – 53% viewed him very favorably – and only 13% viewed him unfavorably. During his last year in the White House, 83% of Texas Republican voters approved of the job he was doing on foreign policy (including 60% who strongly agreed). T

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categoryFavorableUnfavorableNeither/Don't know
Nov. 201554%31%12%
Feb. 201647%41%10%
June 201653%32%13%
Oct. 201660%30%10%
Feb. 201781%12%6%
Oct. 202085%12%4%
Feb. 202185%9%7%
June 202186%8%5%
Oct. 202182%12%6%
Feb. 202280%13%7%
Apr. 202279%10%10%
June 202276%12%11%
Aug. 202276%14%9%
Oct. 202282%9%9%
Dec. 202275%17%9%
Feb. 202379%12%10%
Apr. 202378%16%6%
June 202376%16%8%
Aug. 202379%15%7%
Dec. 202380%13%8%
Feb. 202483%12%5%
Apr. 202484%10%6%

These patterns in Texas public opinion, along with Trump’s history of grudge-driven, vicious attacks, underline why Republican members of the Texas delegation in Congress fall in line most of the time, even when public opinion currents aren’t necessarily on their side on “the issues,” as they are here. Texas Republicans in the U.S. House delegation from Texas have almost uniformly opposed the combined aid packages, fueling embattled rookie Speaker of the House Mike Johnson’s reluctance to support them (despite his public support for funding for Ukraine and Israel). In the Senate, both Senators Cornyn and Cruz voted against the initial aid package that included Republican-leaning measures loudly opposed by Trump; Cornyn voted for the subsequent package shorn of border provisions, while Cruz voted against it. 

The border and immigration

The salience of border and immigration issues to Texas Republican voters requires little elaboration at this point – nor does the the long pattern of their support for restrictive policies and for ever-increasing state spending on border security measures of all kinds, or the underlying opposition to legal immigration and hard line on undocumented migrants already in the country. As the graphics below illustrate, these issues remain highly salient to Texas Republicans. (For more detailed discussion of the border and immigration related results in the latest poll, see the main post that accompanied the release of the poll on February 19.)

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Border security6%18%42%
Political corruption / leadership23%9%1%
Inflation / rising prices10%10%5%
Gun control / gun violence7%0%1%
The economy4%8%4%

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Too many28%50%68%
About the right amount39%24%19%
Too few20%18%8%
Don't know/No opinion13%8%5%

These well-established patterns in Republican attitudes underline the power of Trump’s channeling of election year politics in scuttling what was, by any honest accounting, legislation that leaned hard on increasing enforcement measures and making it harder for migrants to legally enter the U.S. The combination of the naked politics in Trump’s opposition to the Senate bill and consistent messaging (especially from House Republicans) that the bill represented too much of a compromise compared to more extreme legislation already passed by the House tapped into these attitudes among Republican voters – ultimately cowing many Senate Republicans who had been on the fence or even guardedly supportive of the Senate approach.

Views of Ukraine and Russia

The erosion of Congressional Republicans’ support for the initial Senate bill also reflected the fact that Republican support for U.S. aid to Ukraine’s efforts to resist the Russian invasion has eroded over the period of the war, part of an overall decrease in support for doing more for Ukraine. [discuss] Overall, the share of Texans who say the U.S. is doing too little “in response to the Russian invitation of Ukraine'' fluctuated in a narrow range between 18% and 21% throughout 2023, settling at 19% in December 2023. In the same period, between 30% and 37% thought the U.S. was doing too much (33% in December 2023). 

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PollToo muchToo littleRight Amount
Apr. 202215%39%29%
June 202228%27%25%
Dec. 202229%22%34%
Feb. 202330%21%32%
Apr. 202332%21%32%
June 202335%22%30%
Aug. 202336%21%30%
Oct. 202337%19%31%
Dec. 202333%19%33%
Apr. 202428%26%31%

Resistance among Texas members of Congress to recent aid proposals align the attitudes of majorities or near-majorities of Republicans who have said the U.S. is doing too much in most of the six UT/Texas Politics Project polls over the last year. At least 50% and as many as 56% of Republicans said the U.S. was doing too much in response to the Russian invasion.

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PollToo muchToo littleRight Amount
Apr. 202219%44%23%
June 202239%25%16%
Dec. 202244%18%25%
Feb. 202346%17%22%
Apr. 202350%19%21%
June 202353%18%18%
Aug. 202356%15%20%
Oct. 202354%13%23%
Dec. 202350%11%28%
Apr. 202444%16%26%

Underlying the decrease in support for U.S. support is a parallel cooling in how favorably Texans, especially Republicans, view Ukraine. Here, too, views have become less favorable among all partisan groups, though Republican declines started from a lower baseline. In the December 2022 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll, 36% of Republican voters viewed Ukraine favorably, while 34% viewed the country unfavorably (25% were neutral and 5% didn’t know). A year later, favorable views decreased to 30% while unfavorable views increased to 39%. Among Democrats, favorable views were higher in both polls, but also decreased during the same time period, from 72% in 2022 to 65% in 2023.

Views of the Israel-Hamas conflict

Texas voters’ views of the Israeli response to the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack and US policy toward the conflict reveal divisions among Democrats increasingly mentioned as a factor in Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, with more Republicans more unified in their support for the Israeli response, and for U.S. support for Israel.

When asked in December 2023 whether they approved or disapproved of “Israel’s response to the October 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas,” more Democrats disapproved (44%) than approved (39%); Republicans were lopsided in their approval (75%, with 54% strongly approving, and only 12% disapproving).

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Approve strongly12%29%54%
Approve somewhat27%22%21%
Disapprove somewhat19%8%5%
Disapprove strongly25%13%7%
Don't know/No opinion17%28%12%

Another question in the December 2023 poll probed attitudes about the U.S. response to the conflict, which at that point in time had been strongly supportive of the Israeli military response, and found a similar pattern in partisan attitudes:

Which of the following is closest to your view of the United States’ response to the current conflict between Israel and Hamas? The U.S. should... 

Primarily be working to support Israeli military efforts.

Primarily be working to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties.

Be working to balance support for Israeli military efforts AND the prevention of Palestinian civilian casualties. 

Not be involved in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Overall, the plurality, 34%, identified with balancing support form Israeli military efforts with preventing Palestinian civilian casualties, with about a quarter (26%) advocating lending toward support of Israel's military response; 16% didn’t want the U.S. involved, and equal shares either wanted the US to primarily work to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties or didn’t have an opinion.

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Primarily be working to support Israeli military efforts.11%23%43%
Primarily be working to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties.19%8%6%
Be working to balance support for Israeli military efforts AND the prevention of Palestinian civilian casualties.47%35%25%
Not be involved in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.11%18%18%
Don't know/no opinion12%16%9%

As the graphic above illustrates, the plurality of Republicans (43%) said the U.S. should “primarily be working to support Israeli military efforts,” while only a small share of Democrats (11%) agreed. A plurality of Democrats (47%) thought that the US should be working to balance support for Israeli military efforts and the prevention of Palestinian civilian casualties.

In a direct question about views of Israel, 65% of Texans viewed the country favorably, while 20% viewed Israel unfavorably (19% held a neutral view, while 6% had no opinion).  

Republican views of Israel were much more favorable overall than were Democratic views. Three-quarters of Republicans held a favorable view – 48% were very favorable. Only slightly more than a third of Democrats, 36%, held favorable views, with an equal share holding unfavorable views.

The divisions among Democrats evident in these responses were muted by the partisan nature of the initial House vote on a standalone aid package for Israel, which came immediately after the failure of the first combined Senate bill that included border security and immigration measures: all Texas Republican House members voted for the House bill, and all Texas Democrats voted against it in a largely party-line vote in the U.S. House.

Views of Russia and China

Both Russia and China lurk over the foreign policy debate as the countries generally viewed as the most important U.S. adversaries being countered in foreign aid spending, specifically in provision aimed as supporting Ukraine and Taiwan.

Partisan differences evident in Texas voters’ attitudes in other questions about international matters are more muted in views of Russia and China, though not entirely absent. Both countries are viewed overwhelmingly unfavorably among all partisans. Democrats tend to have more intensely negative views of Russia than they do of China, while Republicans have more intensely negative views of China than of Russia, as the graphics below illustrate. 

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Very favorable4%1%3%
Somewhat favorable5%10%8%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%21%17%
Somewhat unfavorable14%13%20%
Very unfavorable63%47%50%
Don't know/No opinion3%8%2%

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Very favorable3%1%3%
Somewhat favorable14%8%7%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%21%13%
Somewhat unfavorable31%14%20%
Very unfavorable26%44%56%
Don't know/No opinion6%13%2%

The similarity of these patterns evident in Texas to national public opinion likely informed the strategy undertaken by supporters of additional aid to Ukraine, prior to the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, to attempt to legislatively marry aid to Ukraine with aid to Taiwan. Things turned out not to be that simple. 

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