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Does Foreign Policy Matter In 2012 Presidential Election?

Polls Still Say "Yes"


Updated August 25, 2012

The Romney/Ryan Republican presidential ticket is betting that Americans will be voting on the economy -- not foreign policy -- when they pick the U.S. president for the next four years on November 6. They may be right, with a sluggish rebound from the Great Recession and less-than-stellar jobs reports dominating the news.

They have some history on their side, as well. As I've written before, George H. W. Bush should have been a shoe-in for reelection in 1992. The year before his approval rating after the Gulf War was near 90%, yet the Bill Clinton campaign effectively changed the game by getting people to focus on the economy. (That campaign also famously gave us the paraphrase of Democratic strategist James Carville's rally cry "It's the economy, stupid!")

But They May Be Wrong

In April 2012 the Pew Research Center released data that shows Americans are still concerned about foreign policy. Of those polled, 52% thought foreign policy issues were "very important," and another 38% said they were "somewhat important." Some 6% said foreign policy was "not too important;" 2% said "not at all important;" and 2% either didn't know or didn't answer. That's 90% above the bar!

In a June 2012 follow-up question, Pew researchers asked which candidate, Romney or Obama, did they think was best suited to make "wise decisions" about foreign policy matters. Of the respondents polled, 48% chose Obama, 40% picked Romney, 4% said neither, and 8% didn't know. Again, the numbers didn't run Romney's way.

In July 2012, a New York Times/CBS News poll dramatically backed up those findings. Asked whether how much a variety of issues would figure in their vote, 75% said "terrorism and national security" were extremely or very important, and 63% said "foreign policy" was extremely or very important. In both of those categories, respondents had more confidence in Obama to handle foreign policy issues than Romney.

That confidence no doubt stems from Obama's successful imperative to kill Osama Bin Laden, his decimation of Al Qaeda leadership, his backing of NATO operations to bring down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya (something even Ronald Reagan never achieved), his ending of the Iraq War, and his soon-to-be-ended Afghan war.

Issues Matter -- Economy or Not

Several foreign policy issues will probably still be hanging over U.S. policy makers after the election, regardless of who wins. Those include:

  • Continued violence in the Syrian civil war.
  • France's concession that it is ready to back a NATO-in-Libya type no-fly zone in Syria (a move tantamount to war).
  • The scheduled pullout of U.S and coalition troops from Afghanistan.
  • Uncertainties over North Korea.
  • Continued Iranian progress toward nuclear weaponry.

Historical Parallel

One has to look back only to the 1930s to find Americans veering the same way in an election year. In 1932, voters ousted President Herbert Hoover -- at first unwilling, then ineffective at countering the Depression -- in favor of Franklin D. Roosevelt. They cared only about getting the U.S. economy and their lives back on track. In fact, the public mandate for FDR as far as foreign policy went was "isolationism."

All the while, foreign events were building toward war. Hitler was about to become chancellor of Germany, and Japan has already taken Manchuria from China. As it turned out, FDR was as adept at foreign policy as he was the economic crisis.

Of course, another world war is not on the horizon. And certainly, respondents in the poll ranked the economy, unemployment, and taxes as extremely or very important, and they gave Romney an edge in the confidence vote there. Nevertheless, the poll -- and world events -- indicate that 2012, like all those that have come before, is not a one-issue campaign.

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