from Campaign 2008

Foreign Policy and the 2008 Presidential Nominating Campaigns

Through the U.S. presidential nominating process, voters have offered a muddled view on foreign policy issues but they continue to generate heat on the campaign trail.

Last updated May 12, 2008 8:00 am (EST)

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Voters in nearly all U.S. states participating in the 2008 party nominating races have placed economic concerns ahead of the war in Iraq and national security. After the economy, the importance voters have attached to foreign policy issues is a mixed picture, according to a range of exit polls and other opinion surveys. On the economic front, the races do not appear to be focused solely on domestic concerns. Voters on the campaign trail, especially in traditional manufacturing states, have signaled negativity toward free trade and globalization, linking them to a loss of higher-paying jobs as well as an influx in illegal immigrants. It has been difficult to link this sentiment to voting patterns. After the economy, Republicans have tended to split on whether immigration or the Iraq war is more important, while Democrats seem more focused on concerns about the war.

Issues of Importance to Voters

Exit polling of Republican and Democratic voters in most states shows the economy far outweighs any other single issue (CQPolitics). After that comes concerns over national security, which lump together terrorism and the Iraq war, followed usually by domestic issues like healthcare. Where people live and what party they belong to affects second- and third-ranked choices in polls published by CNN and McClatchy. In surveys that took place in states voting through the May 6 primaries, the top three issues (CNN) break down for Republicans as follows: the economy followed by national security/Iraq/terrorism or immigration depending on the poll and the state. For Democrats, CNN polling data shows overwhelming concern about the economy followed by Iraq and then healthcare. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center points to wide partisan divides between Democrats and Republicans over U.S. troop deployments in Iraq and issues such as domestic surveillance of suspected terrorists. But he adds: “The public is far less clear as to what it wants with respect to foreign policy.”

The Economy and Globalization

Although the economy is often treated by analysts as purely a domestic issue, voters and politicians have used it to have a discussion on trade and globalization, especially in traditional manufacturing states expected to be battlegrounds in November. Some experts say soundings from the campaign trail show protectionist sentiment is spreading. For example, a December 2007 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll found that close to half the voters in South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire rated free-trade agreements as “a bad thing” on both the Democratic and Republican sides a month before their primaries. The Pew poll also noted that those numbers were consistent with views shown in national polls. Some analysts believe the backlash against free trade and globalization helps Democratic candidates who prefer “fair trade,” which amounts to trade with conditions attached, such as mandating labor and wage standards (Fortune).

Analysts say Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who suspended his campaign following a disappointing finish on Super Tuesday, won the Michigan primary in part by promising to save auto-related jobs from the ravages of globalization. But Romney’s economic message did not seem to resonate as much in states like Florida, South Carolina, and Illinois. Those states were won by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), now the presumptive Republican nominee. Analysts note that McCain is a longtime foe of congressional spending bill excess—which may have helped voters identify him as a fiscal conservative (Rocky Mountain News).

Democratic and Republican candidates are significantly divided on the issue of job offshoring. Romney, Republican Mike Huckabee, and McCain have said they would cut corporate taxes to help keep jobs in the country. But McCain criticized Romney’s Michigan rhetoric on economic revitalization, saying some jobs “aren’t coming back” to the state. However, both offered policies for education and job retraining to help workers compete in the global economy.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and chief rival Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), on the other hand, have both said they would end corporate subsidies they believe reward companies for sending jobs overseas. Clinton would propose a trade “time out” so that some trade deals could be reworked. Clinton and Obama oppose some pending trade deals, including one with Colombia. Candidates have expressed concern about continuing violence (Reuters) against Colombian labor leaders.

The issue of trade has heated up as the campaign has progressed, with Obama and Clinton taking an increasingly populist tone. Worker advocates say Democrats are right to look more seriously at trade given the plight of U.S. workers, especially those in the manufacturing sector. But some analysts say Democratic rhetoric against trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) seems less about policy and more about politics.

Both Democratic candidates want to create domestic jobs through green-energy promotion. Both the Democratic candidates and McCain support wage insurance. The program aims to help workers displaced by job loss due to globalization with financial assistance while they are retrained (USNews). McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, said in a Foreign Affairs article last year that he would work to foster more trade liberalization, including using it as method to fight terrorism. So far little analysis has been done on how voters view individual candidates’ trade proposals.

Energy Policy

Voters in both parties expressed concern about gas prices throughout the nominating period. But the issue of energy policy really only rose to prominence just ahead of the May primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. McCain in April 2008 proposed suspending the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon for the summer driving period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, saying he wanted to give low-income Americans “a little break” (PhillyInquirer). Campaigning ahead of crucial May 6 Democratic primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) endorsed the idea, saying it could be paid for through windfall taxes on oil companies. Her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), criticized it as bad policy. There was no exit polling information available indicating how energy issues figured in the voting. But the proposal for a gas-tax holiday was seen as generating little support for Clinton, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The issue is likely to resonate in the general election campaign, particularly if global oil prices continue to rise. A new report by the Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index found six out of ten Americans believe reducing energy dependence would strengthen national security “a great deal” (PDF).

For much of the presidential campaign, Clinton, Obama, and McCain have been calling to further shake up the status quo on U.S. policies related to energy and climate change, with roughly similar recommendations.

Iraq and National Security

During the competitive phase of the Republican primaries, voters provided pollsters with mixed views on their priority issues. In some states it was immigration and in others either Iraq or national security. When looking at Republican voter responses on Iraq versus terrorism in CNN-published polls, Iraq generally edged out terrorism by a few points. Democrats participating in CNN polls were asked only about Iraq, making comparisons difficult. But in polling held prior to voting in some Super Tuesday states, as well as prior to the April 2008 Pennsylvania primary, Democratic voters consistently ranked Iraq as the second most important issue, far ahead of national security (PDF).

Although illegal immigration ranked a few points higher than Iraq in a few states, when you combine the Iraq war and national security, Republican voters were clearly more concerned about security issues than immigration. In the case of states like Alabama and Arizona, concerns about Iraq and terrorism together outweighed concerns about the economy. Huckabee captured the Alabama race while McCain triumphed in his home state of Arizona.

In contests held through Super Tuesday, when he became the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination, McCain generally attracted voters concerned about national security and the war, which analysts attribute to his military background and vigorous support of the Bush administration’s surge strategy in Iraq. McCain defeated or tied with Romney among security-minded voters in some states where Romney otherwise polled well, such as Massachusetts and Michigan. But, he also took a relatively high percentages of GOP primary voters disapproving of the Iraq war. On the Democratic side, Obama attracted support of voters listing Iraq as a priority in some significant states won by Clinton, such as California, Arizona, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, according to CNN-published polls. Obama has sought to paint Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote to authorize the war in Iraq as a sign of her poor judgment. Clinton has defended her vote and criticized Bush for the failure of his war policies. Both candidates favor troop withdrawal in the near term.

Although the economy is often treated by analysts as purely a domestic issue, voters and politicians have used it to have a discussion on trade and globalization.

Through most of the state contests, exit polls have shown Clinton tending to win on experience among voters, but they have seemed equally attracted to Obama’s message of change.

Analysis of the war’s winning or losing potential for a candidate is mixed and could depend on developments in Iraq as the year progress. Among the general public, a March 2008 Pew survey on the fifth-year anniversary of the war found a decrease in support for the decision to go to war “despite a dramatically improved perception of how the effort in Iraq is going.”

CFR’s Michael Gerson argues that while McCain’s support of the Iraq surge has helped him regain his prominence in the election, it may not help him win. Gerson says McCain also “will need to engage Democrats on issues from health care to education to poverty.”


Republican in early nominating contests signaled concern about illegal immigration, especially in western border states such as California and Arizona. Immigration as an issue was nearly equal in importance to the economy in those states, while elsewhere it was nearly tied or slightly ahead of Iraq in CNN Republican voter polls. Among voters who listed illegal immigration as the top concern, Romney did well. However, McCain, who has been criticized by some in the party for supporting reform legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, won both California and Arizona handily.

Analysis of the war’s winning or losing potential for a candidate is mixed and could depend on developments in Iraq as the year progresses.

At the same time, while Hispanics voting Republican were expected to show strong support for McCain because of his moderate position on immigration reform, in California he received only 35 percent of the Hispanic vote. He also received a lower percentage of Hispanics voting in Nevada in comparison with Romney, who has supported a policy of deporting illegal immigrants. McCain did receive nearly 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in his home state of Arizona and more than half of Hispanic voters in Florida, including especially strong backing from Cuban-Americans. For Democrats, immigration as an issue is not a top concern, except perhaps among Latino voters. But with the positions of Obama and Clinton so close, it did not seem to be a factor in Hispanic voting patterns. Instead, Clinton performed very well among Hispanics in the West, as well as Florida, Texas, New York, and New Jersey, while Obama did well in his home state of Illinois and in Connecticut (PDF).

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