Does foreign policy affect midterm elections?

“Foreign policy no longer Obama strong point,” the Associated Press recently headlined with great fanfare. According to the AP poll, only 43 percent of Americans report that they approve of how President Obama is handling foreign policy, with a strong majority disapproving of how he has handled the conflict in Gaza and situations in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Iraq.

But will this unhappiness with Obama’s foreign policy performance affect the midterm elections in November?

{mosads}The answer is a qualified no. Only one of the three factors linked to congressional election outcomes has anything to do with foreign policy: the president’s approval rating. The other two main predictors of congressional elections — how many seats the president’s party currently holds (more seats gained in the previous election means more to lose in the subsequent one), and whether the economy is doing well (based on economic growth, inflation, employment figures and changes in real income per capita) — are generally consequences of domestic policies.

The question, then, is: “How much does foreign policy affect voter approval of the president’s performance?”

Foreign policy’s effect on approval levels — especially relative to domestic issues — varies over time, depending on the relative importance of economic and policy issues. The more salient economic issues are, the more likely those issues are to influence presidential approval compared to foreign policy.

At the peak of the 1991 Gulf War, the impact of President George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy performance on his overall approval was six times the impact of his economic policy performance. However, by the time of the November 1992 election, those figures had inverted, with economic impact about 12 points more influential than foreign policy. This resulted in the Clinton victory in November 1992, despite public approval of Bush’s success with the Gulf War a year-and-a-half earlier.

Similarly, in November 2002, President George W. Bush enjoyed 63 percent approval, the second-highest postwar approval rating at the time of a midterm election. So although midterms historically result in losses for the president’s party, the 2002 elections actually produced gains of eight Republicans in the House and two in the Senate, enough to gain a majority — likely a spillover from voters’ endorsement of Bush.

Because of Congress’s limited role in foreign policy, it makes sense that foreign policy doesn’t directly influence how the electorate votes. Consider the recent foreign policy issues cited in the AP poll. Congress has had little role in negotiating a Hamas-Israel cease-fire or deciding troop levels in Afghanistan. Members of Congress have complained about being in the dark about potential responses to unrest in Iraq. In the Ukraine situations, only in terms of Russian sanctions could Congress perhaps claim an active role.

And who can blame members of Congress if they are detached from foreign policy decisions? It’s far better that they “sit on their hands” than endorse a risky, interventionist strategy that could imperil American blood and treasure. In this context, it is not surprising that few individuals running for Congress have been citing foreign policy in their campaign ads, focusing instead on jobs, deficits and education.

All of the focus on presidential approval — and the relative influence of foreign policy — begs the question of whether foreign policy issues are currently relevant for voters. In the AP poll, between about 38 and 42 percent report that the situations in Gaza, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Iraq are of pressing importance. These polls do not require that individuals rank the levels of importance, however. When asked to prioritize issues, only 19 percent of the electorate cites a foreign policy issue (security/anti-terror policy).

In a spring 2014 poll, four other issues — the job situation (48 percent), healthcare (42 percent), the deficit (38 percent) and education (31 percent) — ranked far higher. However, with some signs of improving economic performance, especially on unemployment rates, voter attitudes may shift and foreign policy may suddenly become much more important to voters.

If voters are satisfied with these domestic issues, their increasing dissatisfaction with Obama’s foreign policy and the resultant decline in his approval rating could then have a significant effect on the upcoming midterm election.

Kreps is an associate professor of government at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter @sekreps.

Tags 2014 Elections Barack Obama Foreign policy George H.W. Bush George W. Bush midterms presidential approval ratings

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video