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Are We About to Have a Foreign Policy Election?

Are We About to Have a Foreign Policy Election?

October 2023

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

With Republicans and Democrats fighting about aid to Ukraine and war breaking out in the Middle East, it might feel like we’re headed for an election with foreign policy at the top of voters’ minds. But even with the graphic violence from around the world unfolding on our phones and computer screens, we’re still a long way away from foreign policy being a focus of the 2024 elections in the U.S.

In general, our elections tend to be focused on the economy and other related issues, while foreign policy is usually an afterthought.

In the past three election cycles, foreign policy wasn’t even relevant enough for pollsters for the longest-standing exit poll to offer it as a choice for the question of which issue mattered most to voters.

In 2022, more voters chose inflation (31%) as their top issue, over abortion (27%), crime (11%), gun policy (11%) and immigration (10%), according to the Edison exit poll for NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN. The exit poll for The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and The Associated Press offered more choices, and foreign policy was tied with the COVID-19 pandemic for the eighth most important issue, with only 2% of voters saying it was the most important. “The economy and jobs” was cited as the most important issue by 48% of voters.

In 2020, voters chose the economy (35%) over racial inequality (20%), coronavirus (17%), crime and safety (11%), and health care policy (11%), according to the Edison exit poll. In 2018, voters prioritized health care (41%), immigration (23%), the economy (22%) and gun policy (10%). That same cycle, foreign policy registered a distant seventh (5%) in the WSJ/Fox/AP exit poll.

Foreign policy was an option in the three elections before that, but was never a top two issue. It was third in 2016 (13%), fourth in 2014 (13%) and fourth in 2012 (5%), when there was only one exit polling entity. The economy was first in all of those elections: 2012 (59%), 2014 (45%) and 2016 (52%).

Older exit polling is more difficult to find to make comparisons, but our last election focused on foreign policy was probably 2006. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of voters disapproved of the job President George W. Bush was doing, and 56% disapproved of the war in Iraq, according to the Edison exit poll. Bush had also botched the Hurricane Katrina response the year before, and Democrats swept the House and Senate majorities in the midterms.

Even though some critics of President Joe Biden like to compare the conflict in Ukraine to the war in Iraq, there’s at least one key difference: U.S. casualties. Back in 2006, 58 service members died, on average, each month in the lead-up to Election Day. While the U.S. has sent billions of dollars to Ukraine and is considering sending more, troops are not deployed or dying. Those appear to be critical components of an election focused on foreign policy.

The Israel-Hamas war is a fresh and evolving situation that could develop into an election issue.

With at least 33 Americans killed in the Hamas attacks and Americans counted among the hostages, there’s a specific connection that creates a need for some people to place blame. And Republicans are eager to blame Biden for the Hamas attacks because the administration worked with Iran to unfreeze $6 billion in order to secure the return of five American hostages. Even without troop deployment (which is very unlikely), there’s a possibility the war in Israel becomes a political problem for Biden.

But foreign policy has a long way to go to reach the top of voters’ minds.

Foreign policy was tied for 14th on a list of issue priorities in an Aug. 24-30 Wall Street Journal poll. Just 2% of voters said it was the most important issue when thinking about the 2024 presidential election. The economy was first on the list with 24% of voters.

That doesn’t mean foreign policy won’t have any impact. Setting aside the fact that immigration and border security are on voters’ minds and can be considered foreign policy issues, the country’s exit from Afghanistan has had a lasting effect on Biden’s standing.

Biden’s job rating flipped upside down after 13 service members died in the attack at the Kabul airport in August 2021, and he has never recovered politically. Qualitatively, I’ve argued that that was when Biden lost the benefit of the doubt, and he may never get that back. It was Biden’s Katrina moment. He has now lost credibility on other issues, and the president had a 40% approval and 54% disapproval job rating in the FiveThirtyEight average as of October 24, even though foreign policy hasn’t been in the spotlight until recently.

So even though it looks like the U.S. will be involved to some extent in at least two foreign conflicts in the coming months, history tells us the 2024 elections are still more likely to be dominated by economic issues, unless American men and women are deploying overseas or the hostage situation escalates.

Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is [email protected]. 

While the U.S. has sent billions of dollars to Ukraine and is considering sending more, troops are not deployed or dying. Those appear to be critical components of an election focused on foreign policy.

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