We are therefore not surprised by new polling from HuffPost and YouGov showing that views of Trump’s handling of Iran follow the same pattern. Most Republicans think Trump’s handling of the country is right on the money — but most other Americans don’t.
The HuffPost-YouGov poll appears to be the first from a major pollster evaluating the most important aspect of U.S.-Iran relations at the moment: the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike Jan. 3. Most respondents said they had heard at least something about the strike. (Half of respondents said they had heard a lot about it.)
How did people view the strike? Breaking: Dog bites man.
What we obviously impute from the numbers above is that there’s a link between views of Trump and views of what Trump does. What’s not immediately clear is how the causation works. Do people approve of what Trump does because Trump does it? Or does Trump just happen to keep making decisions that align with the actions favored by people who also happen to like him?
This case offers a good test of the question, since there probably aren’t a lot of people who had heard of Soleimani before the strike. Your view of the targeted killing of a foreign official seems as though it would necessarily depend to some extent on your view of that particular official — save the nonzero group of people who would broadly approve of the killing of Iranian leaders.
HuffPost and YouGov asked that, too. About a quarter of respondents said they had heard of Soleimani before this week — but Republicans were significantly more likely to say they had heard of him. More than a third of Republicans, 37 percent, said they had. Twenty-two percent of Democrats or independents expressed similar familiarity.
I’ve seen a similar number only once that I can recall. In the wake of the 2017 tax cuts signed into law by Trump, less than a quarter of Democrats and independents said they had personally seen more money in their paychecks as a result. More than half of Republicans said they had.
It’s a remarkable bit of data, particularly given how rarely Soleimani’s name has been mentioned over the past few years. From June 2009 to the end of last year, Soleimani’s name had been mentioned 115 times total on the three major cable news networks. Most of those were on Fox News, the channel most likely to be watched by Republicans, but only 20 of those mentions have happened since Trump took office.
Again, that’s 20 mentions over the total of Fox’s coverage in the past three years. Not once in the second half of last year. Soleimani was mentioned less on the cable news networks since 2009 than snails, just to pick a subject out of thin air.
You may have also noticed that Republicans were more likely to express a view of the Soleimani strike than Democrats or independents, with 5 percent of Trump’s party saying they weren’t sure whether they approved of the strike. That’s compared with 17 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of independents. Unsurprisingly, Republicans who claimed to have heard of Soleimani were more likely to strongly approve of the airstrike than those who say they hadn’t heard of him (77 to 61 percent).
It’s worth noting that suggestions that Trump launched the strike on Iran to distract from impeachment may not have really had that effect at this point. Coverage of impeachment was already fading, given both the holidays and the lull before a Senate trial.
It certainly may be the case that Trump benefits from coverage of tensions with Iran at a time when he would probably rather not have America focused on impeachment. It’s not really the case, though, that the latter was bumped from front pages by the Soleimani strike.
What the strike does reveal, though, is the extent to which Trump gets the benefit of the doubt from his party.
HuffPost and YouGov asked another question about the strike that seems as though it would be hard to assess from outside the administration: Did Trump plan carefully enough before launching the strike? Again, Republicans are a lot more likely to say that he did and Democrats to say that he didn’t, despite the opaqueness of the process that went into the decision.
Notice, though, that those Republicans who say they had heard of Soleimani were also much more likely to say that Trump planned carefully than were those who say they hadn’t heard of the Iranian commander.
Either those respondents were attuned to some source of information beyond Fox News that not only discussed Soleimani with some frequency and, perhaps, offered unique insights into Trump’s decision-making before the strike — or those respondents simply support Trump fervently and, dubiously, assert broad familiarity with what he does and whom he does it to.