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Study: Party Affiliation Plays A Role In Defining Policy Threat

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the presidential campaigns start to pivot toward the general election in the fall, a new report shows the partisan split in this country is wider than ever. Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center sees huge differences between Republicans and Democrats this year. But he also notes some bipartisan support for a signature issue of the apparent Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

CARROLL DOHERTY: Well, you do see among the public generally a wariness about global engagement, a wariness about international involvement. Fifty-seven percent say the United States should deal with its own problems and let other countries get along as best they can.

The public still wants to keep the United States safe. But, you know, after two wars and then the current involvement in the Middle East, there's a wariness about getting too deeply involved in the world's problems.

MARTIN: So let's look at that partisan divide. Break down what Democrats see as the biggest threats and what Republicans see as the biggest threats.

DOHERTY: Well, you generally see ISIS as the major threat. Eighty percent overall say that's the major threat facing the country. But big partisan divisions there, and especially on the exodus of refugees from the Middle East, Iraq and Syria. Republicans see that as much more threatening than Democrats - and especially Trump supporters. Eighty-five percent of Trump supporters see that as a major threat to United States. That's almost as many as see ISIS as a threat to the United States.

MARTIN: Which is a reflection of the rhetoric that he has used.

DOHERTY: Right, exactly.

MARTIN: And what comes next after ISIS, after refugees?

DOHERTY: Well, cyber attacks - I mean, one of the biggest partisan splits obviously is on climate change. Among Republicans, it's the lowest by far. Among liberal Democrats, it's the most serious threat by far.

MARTIN: Has that changed over time, or...

DOHERTY: It has not. But these gaps just seem enormous.

MARTIN: What about defense spending? This is something that you took a close look at.

DOHERTY: Well, I think what you see there again is this desire for security, especially among Republicans. Republicans look out and see a very scary world. And one of the impacts of that is a real higher level of support for defense spending among Republicans in particular - 61 percent saying they want to see increased defense spending. Now that's up more than 20 percentage points from three years ago.

MARTIN: And Democrats.

DOHERTY: And Democrats, not so much. I mean, just 20 percent or so that spending should be increased. And you see divisions not only across parties but within parties. For instance, on the defense spending front, Bernie Sanders supporters are much more likely than Hillary Clinton supporters to say defense spending should be actually cut.

MARTIN: Well, and what you found in your study - both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree when it comes to the U.S. role in the world. They see there's been a diminishment of the U.S. role, and that's not necessarily such a bad thing.

DOHERTY: Well, I mean, you know, this is where you get into - as we go forward into the presidential campaign, I think it'll be an important area of debate. I mean, one of the biggest areas I think will be global economic engagement. The public's pretty evenly split on this question.

Forty-nine percent see global economic engagement as a bad thing because it costs jobs in this country, 45 percent good thing because it opens new markets for the United States. But here, Trump supporters really stand out from almost everyone else. Sixty-five percent say a bad thing. Most Hillary Clinton supporters say global economic engagement is a good thing.

MARTIN: You also found generational differences in some issues. In particular, one of the most striking is perceptions of the Middle East and Israel in particular.

DOHERTY: Right, right, exactly. Millennials are the most likely generation to actually sympathize with the Palestinians rather than Israel. Older generations tend to sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians. But you've seen this gap narrowing among millennials. They still sympathize with Israel, then the Palestinians, but the share sympathizing, saying they side with the Palestinians, has actually grown a bit.

MARTIN: How does that shake down from party to party?

DOHERTY: We have been tracking this question since the late 1970s. And this gap is relatively new, with Republicans being more sympathetic to Israel than Democrats. The gap is now about as wide as we've ever seen it. It's almost 35 percentage points. And liberal Democrats in particular are kind of skeptical. They have mixed views. About as many sympathize with the Palestinians as with Israel.

MARTIN: Carroll Doherty is the director of political research at the Pew Research Center. Thanks so much for sharing your results.

DOHERTY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.