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Does Foreign Policy Matter in this Election?

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden receive an update on mission against bin Laden.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune’s Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Photo by Pete Souza. PD

The presidential candidates have focused much of their attention in the 2012 election on domestic and economic policy. However, the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last week, and the ensuing demonstrations across the Middle East has offered voters a chance to observe how the candidates would handle real life events. Does foreign policy matter in presidential elections? I argue it does, and more so than candidates and pundits traditionally give it credit.

While the media and pundits have primarily focused their commentary this week on Mitt Romney’s 47% comment delivered during a closed-door donor dinner (watch the full remarks of part I here and part II here), many have glossed over the remarks he made regarding foreign policy. Romney’s remarks that the American people “aren’t concentrated at all” on issues such as relations with China, Russia, Iran and Iraq are of concern here. While many polls show that the economy is the primary issue of importance to the electorate in this election, foreign affairs do in fact shape voter evaluations of the presidential candidates.

What does political science have to say about the matter? While early scholars in behavioral studies, including Walter Lippman and Gabriel Almond, disregarded the role of public opinion in foreign policy, more recent scholarly literature has shown that the public, while not wholly attentive to foreign affairs, can still formulate opinions regarding foreign policy. Furthermore, recent behavioral studies have found that foreign policy provides a means by which citizen’s evaluate presidential candidates and make electoral decisions. While Aldrich, Sullivan and Borgida (1989, gated article) show that information regarding foreign policy issues is available and accessible to citizens, Hurwitz and Peffley (1987, gated article) show voters can use this information to form judgments about an administration.  Using results taken from a National Election Study survey that happened to be underway during disclosures of the Iran-Contra Affair, Kinder and Krosnick (1990, gated article) show that respondents interviewed after the disclosures were considerably less likely to hold positive impressions of President Reagan’s competence and to approve of the way he was doing his job than those interviewed earlier.  Using both aggregate and individual-level data for both foreign policy and economic evaluations of incumbent candidates in the 1980 and 1984 elections, Nincic and Hinckley (1991, gated article) found that citizen’s specific issue evaluations of incumbent candidates shape their overall evaluations of performance.  In turn, the authors argue, overall evaluations shape voters’ electoral decisions.

Taken together, then, these studies show that while voters may not rank foreign policy as their number one concern in polls, they do incorporate it into their overall evaluations of the candidates. It’s no wonder why President Obama and his campaign have repeatedly emphasized the killing of Osama bin Laden and the president’s overall foreign policy record. But the Obama campaign should not get too heady when it comes to foreign affairs. After all, the Republican Party has long held the advantage as the party strong on national security. Furthermore, a new NBC-Wall Street Journal national poll out this week shows that while 54 percent of respondents approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy in August, only 49 percent did so in September. In addition, disapproval of Obama’s foreign policy performance rose from 40 percent in August to 46 percent in September. The poll also reveals deep partisan polarization over foreign policy, with 86 percent of Democrats approving Obama’s handling of foreign policy. Meanwhile, just 10 percent of Republicans approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy in September, dropping from 17 percent in August. Approval by Independents also dropped from 53 percent in August to 41 percent this month. One of the most important issues that voters identified in the poll as a concern with Obama’s candidacy was “proposed cuts to defense will weaken America’s military.” 27 percent of voters aligned with Romney found this concerning, while 7 percent of voters aligned with Obama did. The upsurge in demonstrations across the Middle East no doubt plays a role in approval of the president’s handling of foreign affairs, but as these numbers show, the polarized political environment is also contributing the decline in approval.

As for Mitt Romney, 15 percent of the NBC-WSJ poll respondents said his inexperience in foreign policy was a concern with his candidacy. Again, there was some partisan polarization on this question, with 17 percent of registered voters aligned with Obama saying it was a concern and only 11 percent of voters aligned with Romney saying it was.

While polls show the economy is foremost on the minds of Americans, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney should so easily dismiss foreign policy in this election. The candidates’ positions on foreign policy and their responses to foreign affairs provide guidance to the electorate in evaluating the candidates, and ultimately influence how they will cast their ballot on the election day. In addition, in such an extremely polarized political environment, it’s also clear that elite partisans messages mediate voters’ foreign policy evaluations of the candidates, confirming findings by scholars such as John Zaller (1992, 1994) and Adam Berinsky (2009) who have questioned whether the public comes to its opinions on foreign policy separate from domestic political divisions.

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