By Uri Friedman
WASHINGTON — Sure, polling may suggest that the world isn't following the 2012 U.S. election as closely as it did the 2008 presidential race, when a wildly popular Barack Obama embarked on his quest to replace the deeply unpopular George W. Bush. Heck, 40 percent of Russians in one survey this month didn't even know the U.S. election was taking place this year.
But that doesn't mean people overseas don't care about the campaign's outcome. In a recent UPI/C-Voter/WIN-Gallup International poll, which surveyed more than 26,000 men and women in 32 countries, 62 percent of respondents said that the U.S. president has a high or very high impact on their lives, and 42 percent felt they should have the right to vote in this year's contest for that very reason. When you call yourself the leader of the free world, you'd better believe the world is going to take an interest in who you are.
So what would the election look like if the world really could vote? The short answer: nothing like the razor-thin race unfolding at home. Obama is preferred over Mitt Romney in 31 out of 32 countries in the UPI poll and 20 out of 21 countries in another BBC World Service/GlobeScan/PIPA survey. Fifty-one percent of respondents in the UPI poll said they would cast a ballot for Obama, with more people saying they wouldn't vote for either candidate (18 percent) than would vote for the Republican nominee (12 percent). In the BBC survey, 50 percent of respondents chose Obama and only 9 percent selected Romney.
When translated into headlines, these results can paint the misleading picture that the world is crazy about Obama and dismissive of Romney. But a look at all the polling that has been conducted abroad in recent months suggests that the reality is far more nuanced. You have the French supporting the U.S. president in droves while the Pakistanis spurn both candidates, with most countries falling somewhere in between. If we were handicapping the election using the lingua franca of American politics, here's how we might break down the global electorate.
There is really only one red (foreign) state in this election, and it's Israel. In a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University last week, 52 percent of Israelis said a Romney win would be preferable for Israeli interests, compared with 25 percent who said the same about Obama. The divide was starker among Jewish Israelis, who backed Romney by a 57-22 margin, with support for the GOP candidate strongest among right-wingers. A plurality of Arab Israelis, by contrast, favored Obama (45 percent) over Romney (15 percent). Earlier this fall, a YouGov-Cambridge survey found that 0 percent of Palestinian respondents felt that Romney's election would make them more favorable to the United States (nearly 50 percent said it would have no impact on their feelings toward America).
During the campaign, Romney has taken an aggressive stance on Iran's nuclear program, repeatedly emphasized the importance of U.S.-Israeli relations (he visited Jerusalem over the summer), and expressed skepticism about the Palestinians' commitment to peace. Benjamin Netanyahu hasn't expressed a preference for Obama or Romney during his effort to get the United States to commit to clear "red lines" for Iran's nuclear program, but the Israeli press has speculated that the prime minister's meddling in the race could invite U.S. payback if Obama is reelected.
The world over, the American president may have no stauncher friend than France. In poll after poll after poll after poll, the French top the list of Obama backers, with support ranging from the low 70s to the low 90s, depending on the survey. France's Socialist President François Hollande appears to be one of those boosters, though he also recognizes that France's love could go unrequited during a campaign in which Romney has accused Obama of endeavoring to turn the United States into a "European-style welfare state." Hollande recently joked that he should endorse Romney just to sink the candidate's chances.
Many Western and Northern European nations — including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom — are similarly enthusiastic, though the UPI poll suggests that countries such as Finland and Ireland are less passionate about Obama than, say, Germany. A couple Southern and Eastern European countries — namely Italy and the Czech Republic — belong in this category as well.
Elsewhere in the world, Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Panama are staunchly in the Obama camp, with support hovering around the 60s. Obama is polling in the 50s and 60s in Asia-Pacific countries such as Australia, Indonesia (where Obama lived as a young boy), and South Korea, and in the 60s and 70s in African countries like Cameroon and Nigeria. BBC polling suggests that support for Obama has actually surged in Brazil, Indonesia and Panama (Obama's so popular in Brazil, in fact, that at least 16 candidates recently used the president's name to attract votes during municipal elections).
Anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of respondents in the countries above want Obama to be reelected — enough of a groundswell to put these nations safely in the incumbent's column.
LIGHT BLUE STATES
This category overlaps with others on the list, but the countries involved constitute something of a special case: All have grown markedly disillusioned with Obama over the past four years. Think of these countries as the young people staring up at faded Obama posters that Romney running mate Paul Ryan mentioned in his convention speech.
Support for Obama in Kenya, once the home of the president's late father, has declined from a staggering 87 percent in 2008 to 66 percent today, according to the BBC, while support for Obama's Republican challenger has risen from 5 percent to 18 percent during the same period (it's worth noting that UPI still has Obama polling at 83 percent in Kenya). "Compared to other past U.S. presidents and in particular President Bush, who had very low approval levels when he left office, the Obama administration has not in any way improved relations with Africa or has had any specific economic and social policy favoring Africans," Kenyan lawyer Dann Mwangi recently noted in The Standard (though apparently Obamamania is still alive and well in Obama's father's village).
The same poll shows support for Obama falling from 54 percent to 43 percent in Mexico, 35 percent to 28 percent in China, and 38 percent to 34 percent in Poland. A Pew Research Center survey this past spring backed up this finding, showing confidence in Obama's leadership plummeting 24 points in China since 2009 and 13 and 12 points in Mexico and Poland, respectively.
The Pew poll also showed that confidence in the president has fallen by 11 points in Japan and Spain, which perhaps explains why polling for these two countries is all over the place. Surveys that pit Obama against Romney have shown the president polling anywhere from 45 percent to 77 percent among Spaniards (polling in Portugal produces similar swings). BBC and UPI polls show Obama polling in the 30s in Japan, but 66 percent of Japanese respondents in the Pew poll said Obama should be reelected (Romney may not have improved his standing in Spain by using the country as a cautionary tale about fiscal irresponsibility during the first debate).
Romney, who's polling at 16 percent in Poland, has improved slightly on John McCain's popularity in the country in 2008 (Romney visited Warsaw during his overseas trip this summer and has accused the Obama administration of abandoning its Polish ally to appease Russia). But in China, the only country in Pew's survey that is following the 2012 election more closely than the 2008 race, Romney has not capitalized on Obama's declining support. Instead, Chinese news outlets and officials have repeatedly condemned "China-bashing" by both candidates. It's telling that while Obama is beating Romney 38-16 among Chinese participants in UPI's poll and 28-9 in the BBC's poll, half or more of the respondents in the surveys didn't express support for either candidate.
In the global context, it's helpful to think of swing states not as those that could break for either Obama or Romney but rather as countries where support for the candidates is tepid and where roughly half or more of the population wouldn't vote for either of the presidential aspirants. You could say these silent majorities are undecided, but the president and his Republican challenger are unlikely to win them over any time soon.
Light Blue countries like China, Mexico and Poland might also fit into this category. But so would several other nations where Obama is polling anywhere from the 20s to the 40s and Romney is stuck in the single digits or low teens. These include Ecuador and Peru in Latin America; Hong Kong, India and Malaysia in Asia; Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey in the Middle East; and Bulgaria, Georgia, Macedonia, Romania and Slovakia in Eastern Europe.
Greece, which is currently at the center of the European debt crisis, might fall into this camp as well, since only 45 percent of Greek respondents told Pew that Obama should be reelected. In the same survey, only 18 percent of respondents from Egypt said Obama should be reelected and just 29 percent expressed confidence in Obama's leadership, a 13-point drop from 2009 (we don't know much about opinion in other Middle Eastern flashpoints such as Libya and Syria, but more than half of YouGov/Cambridge respondents in both countries said Romney's election would have no impact on their feelings toward the United States). As one professor in Cairo told Reuters, Obama "didn't deliver" but "he is much better than Romney."
In Russia, meanwhile, Obama is beating Romney by a margin of 27-12, according to the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends survey (a poll this week by Russia's Levada Center has Obama up 41 to 8). Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has dismissed Romney's characterization of Russia as America's top geopolitical foe and described Obama as a "very honest man."
For its consistent and overwhelming opposition toward both major-party U.S. presidential candidates — hostility that has only been inflamed by drone strikes and the Osama bin Laden raid — Pakistan deserves a category of its own. A surprising result of the BBC's global opinion poll was that more Pakistanis supported Romney (14 percent) than Obama (11 percent). But the larger story is that the vast majority of Pakistanis didn't choose either candidate. UPI's survey arrived at a similar result, with 13 percent of Pakistani respondents backing Obama, 9 percent supporting Romney, and nearly 50 percent saying they didn't approve of either candidate or that there was no difference between them. This phenomenon isn't new in Pakistan, either. Seven percent of Pakistanis expressed confidence in Obama's leadership in Pew's 2012 survey, compared with 13 percent in 2009.
With headlines like "Poor choice for Americans" and "The US elections mean nothing for Pakistan," it's clear the Pakistani press agrees with public opinion. "The American President irrespective of party colours will do what they or the State Department, Pentagon or the CIA thinks is best for their country," Tughral Yamin recently observed in Pakistan's The News International. "We should concentrate on rebuilding our country in a manner that it is taken seriously by all incumbents of the White House in the times to come."
What are the broader lessons we can learn from all these statistics? According to UPI data, countries that enthusiastically support Obama tend to cite the candidates' competence, personality and personal background as the main factors influencing their (theoretical) vote, while countries that are particularly down on the president or supportive of Romney tend to mention the candidates' policies toward their nations. More broadly, it appears that, with some exceptions, Israel is Romney country and Northern and Western Europe is Obama country, with a skeptical rest of the world in the middle. As for Pakistan? Perhaps they'll flock to Ron Paul.
Friedman is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.