It was long thought that most Americans shrugged their shoulders at foreign policy. Some political scientists posited this was because Americans saw international affairs as distant events that didn’t affect their daily lives; others believed it was because the public didn’t know enough about foreign policy to react intelligently to it.
But Americans’ overwhelming response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to fly in the face of that belief. Instead, it’s consistent with more recent research that citizens not only have opinions on foreign policy, but also assess their leaders based on it. It turns out, research suggests, that not all foreign-policy issues are created equal: Most Americans may not concern themselves with day-to-day international relations, but acute international crises often do grab their attention.
According to multiple studies, one thing that can make Americans care more about foreign affairs is heavy media coverage of a given issue. And the media is heavily covering the war in Ukraine right now. According to closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, from Feb. 22-28, the three major cable-news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) mentioned Ukraine in an average of 2,478 15-second clips per day.1 On Feb. 24, the day after Russia started its invasion,2 Ukraine was mentioned in a whopping 3,095 clips. To put this in perspective, during January, the word “COVID” was mentioned in an average of only 482 clips per day.
Heck, on Election Day 2020, former President Donald Trump was mentioned by name in only 2,675 clips. In other words, Ukraine is utterly dominating the news.
And Americans say they’re watching. According to a Feb. 25-27 poll from Data for Progress, 63 percent of likely voters said they have read or heard a lot about Russia invading Ukraine. And a Feb. 28-March 1 poll from Ipsos/Reuters found that 85 percent of adults said they were either very or somewhat familiar with the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
And just as political science would predict, all that coverage is making Americans prioritize the issue. In a YouGov/Yahoo News poll from Feb. 24-27, 86 percent of adults said the situation with Russia and Ukraine was either very or somewhat important. Of course, it’s easy to say an issue is important in the abstract, but even when respondents were asked to choose only one issue to be President Biden’s top priority, Russia and Ukraine came in first place with 23 percent (though it was tied with inflation).
Why Russia is waging war in Ukraine | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
Similarly, 58 percent of adults polled by YouGov/CBS News on Feb. 24-28 said Russia’s invasion matters a lot to the interests of the U.S. And among Americans who planned to watch or listen to the State of the Union, more respondents (73 percent) said it was important for Biden to talk about Russia and Ukraine in his address than said so about any other issue, including the economy (67 percent), inflation (61 percent) and the coronavirus pandemic (52 percent).
In sum, the first question we often have when there is major news abroad — will Americans care about this? — has been answered. The public is clearly reacting strongly to the war. But that raises a second question: Will the crisis then affect how Americans feel about their president?
Immediately after Russia’s invasion, some commentators speculated that Biden could experience a surge in his job-approval ratings as a result of the rally-’round-the-flag effect, or the tendency for presidents to get more popular in times of war. But so far, that hasn’t happened. According to the FiveThirtyEight average, Biden ended March 3 with a 41.6 percent approval rating, one of the lowest numbers of his presidency. There is no sign of a rally even in polls conducted entirely after Russia’s invasion: For example, Ipsos/Reuters gave him a 43/54 approval/disapproval spread, little changed from his 43/53 rating in their pre-invasion poll.
This isn’t surprising when you consider the actual mechanisms behind the rally-’round-the-flag effect. Political scientists have offered two causes of the phenomenon: an upswell of patriotism in response to the crisis and a lack of criticism of the president that accompanies the crisis, as opposition politicians either show solidarity with him or keep their mouths shut.
Neither condition is met in the U.S. right now. Sure, Americans are showing a lot of solidarity — but with Ukraine, not their fellow Americans. After all, it has been Ukrainian flags, not American flags, adorning social media and prominent buildings over the last few days. According to a Feb. 25-28 poll from Canadian consumer-research firm Maru, 89 percent of Americans said they stood with the people of Ukraine against Russia. But since Biden isn’t the president of Ukraine, there’s little reason to expect this would help him.
And Republicans certainly aren’t holding back from criticizing Biden amid the crisis. The official Twitter account of House Republicans last week tweeted a photo of Biden with the caption, “This is what weakness on the world stage looks like.” After the invasion, Sen. Ted Cruz said on Fox News, “The reason Russia has invaded Ukraine is because of catastrophic mistakes made by President Biden.” And Trump himself has said Biden failed “terribly” in allowing the war to start.
In other words, it takes a lot to trigger a rally-’round-the-flag effect. (Just think about how big a crisis would have to be to get Republicans to stop attacking Biden.) Indeed, research has shown that international crises, and even small deployments of American troops, historically have given the president only a small boost in the polls, or none at all. Only all-out wars or large-scale terrorist attacks produce the kind of emotional response required for a significant rally-’round-the-flag effect — and of course, Biden has pledged that the U.S. will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine.
That said, Biden’s approval rating could still increase as a result of Ukraine — not because of the rally-’round-the-flag effect, but simply because people like what he’s done to address the crisis. Last week, I identified a paradox in the polling on Ukraine: Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of the situation but agreed with the specific actions he’s taken, like imposing sanctions and not using military force. That’s still the case after the invasion: In the aforementioned YouGov/CBS News poll, 76 percent of adults said the U.S. should place economic sanctions on Russia, and 71 percent thought the U.S. should not send troops to Ukraine. But respondents still disapproved of the way Biden was handling the situation with Russia and Ukraine, 59 percent to 41 percent.
It’s possible that, as time wears on, Americans will start to give Biden credit for his popular policies on Ukraine and that those numbers will come into closer alignment. According to Ipsos/Reuters, Biden’s approval/disapproval rating on Ukraine improved from 34/49 before the invasion to 43/47 after it. His State of the Union address on Tuesday could also hasten that along, given that he started the speech by talking about Ukraine (although historically, any boosts presidents have received from State of the Union addresses have been short-lived).
But it’s also possible that the paradox is, in fact, a feature and not a bug. Political science tells us that people turn to trusted political elites to tell them what to think about foreign policy. And as long as Republicans keep telling their voters that Biden is mishandling Ukraine — while not opposing (even supporting!) his actual policy on it — partisan polarization may prevent Biden from reaping any political benefit.