Will 2016 Be a Foreign Policy Election?

30 September 2015, 0053 EDT

The Third Way project, a centrist Democratic policy outfit, has just released an interesting survey on public attitudes going in to the 2016 election.  They make two arguments that I think are worth exploring, (1)  the foreign policy advantage Democrats briefly enjoyed in the wake of the Iraq War has dissipated and (2) foreign policy may be more salient in this election than in the recent past.  My general take is that foreign policy, barring a crisis, isn’t a big driver of voter decisions in presidential elections. That said, it could be an important issue for a more significant segment of the electorate than in past elections. That could matter on the margins in a close election. I’ll come back to this at the end of this post.As for the partisan gap on national security, the folks at Third Way identified a paradox in their survey findings:

Most importantly, our survey revealed a paradox that may be at the heart of the Democratic Party’s national security problem. While voters overwhelmingly favored Republicans on national security, they viewed Democrats as much more like themselves on national security.

My wife Bethany Albertson just released a book with Shana Gadarian, Anxious Politics, which I think offers a ready explanation for the somewhat curious patterns observed in the survey. An emotionally anxious electorate will turn to the party that offers “protective policies” that they perceive will keep the country safe. If a particular party seems to own an issue area, they are able to generate support from folks who normally wouldn’t agree with them, even when the party’s preferences may be further from their own. Republicans in this case have had a traditional dominance on national security that deteriorated in the wake of the Iraq War but which has seen new life in the wake of the resurgence of ISIS.

This helps us understand the graphic that I embedded above from Third Way where voters are closer to the Democrats on policy but seem to trust the Republicans more on national security. As the graphic below suggests, Republicans not surprisingly think their party is best equipped to handle national security. More importantly, Independents currently think Republicans do a better job on national security than Democrats.

Source: Third Way

I think the resurgent sense of fear and concern about national security is bound up almost though not exclusively with anxiety about ISIS and terrorism, though Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the Ebola crisis may also be relevant. The 2014 Chicago Council survey found strong support for counter-terrorism measures (drone strikes, targeted assassinations, air strikes), despite a reluctance to deploy US ground troops abroad. The recent 2015 Chicago Council survey found a slight increase in support for those measures. Consistent with rising anxiety about terrorism, the survey found a spike in concern in about “Islamic fundamentalism” across the electorate (see graphic below).

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Should Democrats Be Worried?

The 2016 election is still more than a year away, and a lot can happen in the interim. Moreover, it is still unclear how salient foreign policy will be next time. The conventional wisdom is that outside of crisis years that foreign policy doesn’t matter a whole hell of lot in elections, though nominees (and their VPs) still have to pass a test of being perceived as credible commanders in chief.

Is this actually going to be a foreign policy election? I’m not convinced it will be. Part of the results may be an artifact of giving survey respondents a fixed list of concerns, including national security. I’d be curious what people say if they are given an open-ended question about what their top concerns are. I’d also be curious to know when they say national security, what are they really worried about. My guess is terrorism and ISIS almost exclusively, but I wonder if pushed, the electorate might blanch if they knew that Republicans plans for addressing ISIS and instability in the Middle East mean restoring ground troops to Iraq and potential war with Iran.

It certainly behooves GOP candidates in the primary to talk up foreign policy since it’s the most important issue for a 1/3 of those in the Third Way survey:

35% of Republicans, 21% of Independents, and 17% of Democrats listed national security as the most important issue. Independents chose it more than twice as often as any issue except the economy.

If the situation in the Middle East deteriorates further or there is some significant terrorist attack between now and the 2016, then national security might become more salient. Moreover, if the economy continues to grow and generate jobs, Republicans may find it difficult to criticize Democrats on their domestic job performance, making it more  attractiveness to elevate national security concerns to the fore.  Whether Americans will care in sufficient numbers is another story.

The critical empirical questions here are (1) What proportion of voters who identify foreign policy as a top concern are wobbly and could vote Republican? and (2) Are there enough of them located in swing states to tilt the balance in favor of the Republicans? Perhaps some enterprising American politics folks or Nate Silver can take that data challenge on.

In the meantime, I’d be curious to see what effect the migration crisis in Europe is having on Americans’ attitudes about their sense of safety and whether Americans’ attitudes to immigration are changing at all in the face of the migrant crisis over there. It could be that it is so far away that most people aren’t making a connection, but I fear that a segment of the electorate may be uneasy generally and make wild connections between instability of porous borders over there and the domestic scene here. That, for now, is conjecture.

For Democrats, the challenge if these results hold up, both on the partisan gap and salience, is fashioning a coherent narrative for why Democrats offer better solutions to the problem, when it is not obvious what the right strategy is to defeat ISIS and shore up failing states in the Middle East.