South Koreans watch TV news in Seoul in August, on the day North Korea launched three ballistic missiles over the Sea of Japan. (Jeon Heon-Kyun/European Pressphoto Agency)
There was a pretty striking finding in Thursday’s Quinnipiac University poll: Fully 46 percent of Republicans — a plurality — said they would support a preemptive strike against North Korea.
That’s nearly half of President Trump’s party that is ready for war — today — with Kim Jong Un, his nuclear weapons and all. (Forty-one percent said they opposed a preemptive strike.)
It’s no surprise that Republicans are more hawkish on this than Democrats are; that’s generally the case on foreign policy. But basically nobody is talking about the prospect of a strike right now. Even when Trump talks about it, he’s responding to North Korea threatening the United States or its allies.
Yet it also seems possible that Trump’s ramped-up rhetoric on this could be having an effect on his base. Trump in August promised “fire and fury” if North Korea ran afoul of him. Last month, he threatened in his speech at the United Nations to “totally destroy” the country — a threat that seemed to tie average North Koreans to their government’s demise. He has repeatedly called Kim “Rocket Man” and generally proved fond of the kind of saber-rattling we expect from the other side of this standoff.
So does he suddenly have Republicans gearing up to wave the flag of war? Maybe.
There has been limited polling on this question over the years, but the new survey does show a marked increase from previous ones. In 2006, for example, a Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll asked whether the United States should continue with diplomacy or use a preemptive strike “to stop North Korea from continuing to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.” In that case, 20 percent of respondents overall and just 28 percent of Republicans picked the preemptive strike.
However, a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted a couple of weeks ago also differs markedly from the new Quinnipiac survey. The late-September Post-ABC poll asked whether the United States should launch a military strike “only if North Korea attacks the U.S. or its allies first” or “before it can attack the U.S. or its allies.” In that case, 23 percent overall and 30 percent of Republicans picked the preemptive-strike option, and Republicans were about two to one against it.
It’s difficult to believe that Republican support for a preemptive strike suddenly rose by 16 points over the past two weeks, given that all of Trump’s comments noted above came before both polls — and given that there haven’t been many other developments of late. More likely, it seems, the truth lies somewhere between the two polls, with the questions’ wording affecting how people responded.
But it’s also true that the president is a politician who is very focused on what his base likes. He has proved he can affect its views and priorities. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the GOP is at least somewhat more ready to strike North Korea today than it was back in 2006. And either way, it’s still a substantial proportion of the party.