from The Water's Edge

Campaign 2016 Friday Foreign Policy Roundup: The White Whale of American Politics

A polling station in Cleveland, Ohio. (Shannon Stapleton /Reuters)

January 29, 2016

A polling station in Cleveland, Ohio. (Shannon Stapleton /Reuters)
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:

Elections and Voting

Politics and Government

Polls show that national security has shot up the list of concerns for voters, and especially for Republicans. That has spurred talk that 2016 could provide something we haven’t seen in a while, if ever, an election in which foreign policy proves decisive. The fact that more voters, though not necessarily a majority, have foreign policy—or more accurately, terrorism—on their minds certainly points in that direction. But as I have noted before, foreign policy can matter more to voters without necessarily changing who wins.

To see why, consider that foreign policy can influence voting outcomes in three ways. The first is by differentiating between candidates during the primary campaign. We aren’t seeing much of that in 2016. With the exception of Rand Paul, all the GOP candidates occupy roughly the same place on foreign policy. So what to do about, say, Syria or North Korea, doesn’t look to explain why Donald Trump is leading the polls and Jeb Bush and John Kasich are trailing. (True, Ben Carson’s poll numbers have fallen since the Paris attacks, but commentators had long been predicting that the political neophyte’s poll numbers would fall.) Trade might have emerged as an issue separating Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But Clinton’s decision to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, at least in its current form, eliminated that possibility. Conversely, the low priority that most Democratic voters place on foreign policy means that Sanders’s thinner resume on the topic hasn’t been the liability that it otherwise might be. 

A second way foreign policy issues could change who wins in November is by changing who turns out to vote. As the mix of voters changes, so too can who wins. But foreign policy issues don’t have much of a track record in mobilizing non-voters to vote.

That leaves the third way that foreign policy could determine November’s outcome, by giving voters reason to pick one candidate over another in the general election. We don’t yet know who the final two candidates will be or what events will dominate the news come next fall, so anything is possible. But one trend reducing the odds that foreign policy decides the outcome of the election is the disappearing swing voter. In the 1950s and 1960s, an estimated 15 percent of the electorate switched between the Democratic and Republican parties from one election cycle to another. Now only about 5 percent of voters do. When you add in the fact that foreign policy tops the priority list for GOP voters but not for Democratic voters, you have a political dynamic that reinforces existing party choices rather than changes them. Foreign policy could be what ends up moving 2016 swing voters, but so could a host of other issues.

In all, the odds are good that a foreign policy election will continue to remain the white whale of American politics, often spoken of but seldom seen. 

In Case You Missed It

Ben Carson released two policy plans this week. One details his ideas for defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The second discusses his strategy for cyber security and innovation. He warns that “data thefts are sapping America’s competitive edge economically and militarily, while our critical infrastructure remains more vulnerable than ever before.” Bernie Sanders denounced “disastrous trade agreements” on Tuesday, arguing that his “record on trade is very, very different than Secretary Clinton’s.” Former candidate Lindsey Graham believes that Jeb Bush “is ready to be commander in chief during these dangerous times.”

A new Quinnipiac poll finds that 8 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers view foreign policy as the most important issue in deciding who to vote for and 4 percent choose terrorism. When it comes to likely Iowa Republican caucus goers, Quinnipiac finds that 18 percent rank terrorism the most important issue in choosing which candidate to support and 11 percent name foreign policy. The New York Times reports that “Republicans are most concerned with terrorism and foreign policy, while Democrats are focused primarily on jobs and the economy”—a not particularly surprising observation. According to a new Gallup poll, only “three in ten Americans follow the election very closely.”

If you missed the CNN Democratic presidential town hall, CNN provides a transcript. And, if you didn’t catch last night’s GOP debate, The New York Times provides transcripts of both the prime-time and the undercard debates. 

Elizabeth Saunders provides an exhaustive review of what political scientists have learned about foreign policy’s impact on elections. Vox suggests that foreign policy has been largely absent in the Democratic race, to the distress of Democratic foreign policy experts. Conversely, the Wall Street Journal notes that Campaign 2016 “is on course to be an inverse of the 2008 election”; what started as a debate on the economy has become dominated by foreign policy. Dan Drezner suggests five international relations books for all the presidential candidates to read. He also offered up a reading list tailored for specific candidates.

Looking Ahead

We are three days away from the Iowa caucuses. Finally, after thousands of campaign events, innumerable polls, and incessant speculation, some real, live voters—or at least a small number of not demographically representative voters—get the chance to say who they support. If you don’t understand how the Iowa caucuses work, the Washington Post has an explainer.

The New Hampshire primary comes eight days after Iowa, on Tuesday, February 9. But before the voters from the Live-Free-or-Die State go to the polls, we could have two more debates. The New Hampshire Union Leader has announced plans to host a debate for Democratic candidates next Thursday, February 4. It would be carried on MSNBC, and Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow would moderate. However, the DNC has yet to sanction the event. Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have said they will participate, and Clinton has publicly urged Bernie Sanders to say yes as well. Although Sanders has called for more Democratic debates, he says he will agree to the Union Leader debate only if the Clinton campaign will commit to three more debates. 

There is no uncertainty on the other side of the aisle. Republicans next take the debate stage on Saturday, February 6 at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. ABC News will broadcast the event at 8 p.m. (EST), and David Muir and Martha Raddatz will moderate. For the first time in Campaign 2016, there will be no undercard round. ABC announced the qualifying criteria this week. Odds are good that we will see fewer debate participants.

We are 171 days out from the start of the Republican National Convention, which opens at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on July 18. We are 178 days out from the start of the Democratic National Convention, which opens at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on July 25. We are now 284 days away from Election Day.

More on:

Elections and Voting

Politics and Government