Three ways foreign policy can impact the presidential primaries

Will foreign policy be decisive in the U.S. presidential election come November?

Probably not.

That is, if we can learn anything from previous U.S. presidential contests, it is that foreign policy issues very rarely determine who wins the general election. As UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck has argued, the economy drives electoral outcomes in most cases and, even when it doesn’t, foreign policy tends to remain a secondary issue. For one, she points out that strong economic performance in a presidential election year is associated with electoral success for the incumbent’s party. And, historically, when a candidate has won the presidency despite economic trends unfavorable to their campaign, foreign policy has not been the deciding factor (Vavreck cites Kennedy ‘60, Nixon ‘68, Carter ‘76, and Bush ‘00 as examples).

Yet, while Vavreck’s analysis is compelling and provides a good starting-point for election forecasting, it doesn’t mean that foreign policy is meaningless for the 2016 election, particularly during the primaries. In fact, there are three ways that foreign policy can boost certain candidates and weigh down others.

1.     Party and donor support. While the average voter is generally more concerned with domestic rather than foreign issues (terrorism and immigration blur this divide), party and donor elites are more likely to have an interest in international politics and commerce. Sheldon Adelson, a Republican casino magnate, is perhaps the most prominent example of a major donor with a strong interest in foreign policy. In the 2016 cycle, Adelson reportedly soured on Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) because he felt that the Wisconsin governor’s views on international affairs and Israel were underdeveloped. Meanwhile, he is supposedly drawn to Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioTrump at immigration crossroads Poll: Majority of GOP voters wish they chose another presidential nominee The Trail 2016: Trump the Politician MORE (R-Fla.), in part due to the Florida senator’s hawkishness.  

2.     Media validation. Though not all voters read the World section of the newspaper or look for op-eds on foreign policy, some do. The way that reporters and opinion writers cover the campaign can send a signal to potential voters about the suitability of a candidate to be commander-in-chief. Even if a voter--or donor--prioritizes domestic issues over international ones, an endorsement or rebuke of a candidate’s foreign policy background from an influential member of the media could tip the scales in a competitive primary.

3.     The gateway dynamic. Finally, as Hoover Institution fellow Kori Schake notes, foreign policy is a “gateway” issue: foreign policy keeps candidates out rather than putting them over the top. That is, candidates who are palpably uncomfortable speaking about international affairs may be winnowed from the primary field, but a strong foreign policy background is unlikely to be a major plus. Ben Carson, whose own advisers have had serious concerns about their candidate’s knowledge of international affairs, is struggling to meet the threshold level of credibility on foreign policy.

The impact of foreign policy on presidential elections is mostly felt in the primaries. But it is nonetheless clear that both the primaries and the general election matter a great deal for U.S. foreign policy. The American electoral process influences the country’s image abroad, leads candidates to make promises not easily cast aside once in office, and helps determine who gets key foreign policy jobs in the new administration.

So while international affairs is unlikely to be pivotal in November--barring a major terrorist attack or another catastrophic international event prior to the election--the foreign policy discourse during the campaign can help narrow the field, give candidates a boost with elites, and set the tone for the next administration’s global agenda.

Goldfien is a campaigns fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and has an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.

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