Did foreign policy matter in the 2012 election?

Yes, this year’s presidential election may have featured a fair amount of talk about America’s defense spending, China’s trade practices, Iran’s nuclear program, and the Obama administration’s response to the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But when you crunch the numbers, the truth is that foreign policy didn’t matter much in ushering ...

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Yes, this year's presidential election may have featured a fair amount of talk about America's defense spending, China's trade practices, Iran's nuclear program, and the Obama administration's response to the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But when you crunch the numbers, the truth is that foreign policy didn't matter much in ushering Barack Obama to reelection in 2012.

When George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in the first U.S. presidential election since 9/11, exit polls showed that terrorism, moral values, and the economy were the most decisive issues in the campaign, with roughly one-fifth of voters citing each as their top concern in the race (the war in Iraq was not far behind). It's particularly difficult to defeat an incumbent "when the country's perceived to be in some level of a war," a Kerry strategist mused after Election Day.

In retrospect, the 2004 election was an outlier in recent political history -- a contest that revolved around foreign rather than domestic policy. This year's race, by contrast, was no such exception. A CNN exit poll on Tuesday found that 60 percent of voters cited the economy as the most important issue on their minds, compared with 4 percent who mentioned foreign policy. A Fox News exit poll arrived at a similar finding, with 59 percent of respondents selecting the economy, 18 percent choosing health care, 15 percent referencing the federal budget deficit, and just 5 percent citing foreign policy.

Yes, this year’s presidential election may have featured a fair amount of talk about America’s defense spending, China’s trade practices, Iran’s nuclear program, and the Obama administration’s response to the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But when you crunch the numbers, the truth is that foreign policy didn’t matter much in ushering Barack Obama to reelection in 2012.

When George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in the first U.S. presidential election since 9/11, exit polls showed that terrorism, moral values, and the economy were the most decisive issues in the campaign, with roughly one-fifth of voters citing each as their top concern in the race (the war in Iraq was not far behind). It’s particularly difficult to defeat an incumbent "when the country’s perceived to be in some level of a war," a Kerry strategist mused after Election Day.

In retrospect, the 2004 election was an outlier in recent political history — a contest that revolved around foreign rather than domestic policy. This year’s race, by contrast, was no such exception. A CNN exit poll on Tuesday found that 60 percent of voters cited the economy as the most important issue on their minds, compared with 4 percent who mentioned foreign policy. A Fox News exit poll arrived at a similar finding, with 59 percent of respondents selecting the economy, 18 percent choosing health care, 15 percent referencing the federal budget deficit, and just 5 percent citing foreign policy.

Sure, we vote on intangibles and personal qualities, not just issues. And sure, those who mentioned foreign policy as their top issue in the Fox poll voted for Obama by a 56-33 margin — suggesting that the Democrats ultimately retained their rare foreign-policy advantage even though Mitt Romney managed to chip away at Obama’s edge on international affairs in the campaign’s final weeks. But as a pivotal campaign issue, foreign policy barely registered.

We’ve known for a long time that America’s sluggish economic recovery would dominate the election. In January, the Pew Research Center reported that the American public was more concerned about domestic policy than at any point in the past 15 years. For months now, the percentage of voters citing foreign-policy topics as the most important issues in the campaign has hovered in the single digits. Voters in swing states like Ohio and Florida have expressed far more concern about the economy than about foreign policy and national security, as have all-important independent and undecided voters

Two factors could have catapulted international affairs to greater prominence: the Libya attack and the foreign-policy debate. But polling suggests that Obama’s strong performance in the foreign-policy debate did little to alter the tight race that materialized after the president’s lackluster performance in the first, domestic policy-focused debate. And the Romney campaign adopted a hot-and-cold approach to Libya, criticizing the administration’s handling of the violence and overall Mideast strategy one minute and clamming up on the subject the next.

In fact, as the dust settles after Romney’s defeat, conservatives may criticize the campaign for not talking about Libya enough. During an appearance on Fox News last week, the Weekly Standard‘s Bill Kristol urged the Republican candidate to raise Libya on the trail during the final days of the race. "I think if he doesn’t talk about it, voters will say it’s so complicated, it was a screw-up but everyone screws up," he noted. 

"It’s Libya where [Romney] went weak," the Washington Post‘s Charles Krauthammer told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News earlier this week. "He could have hit Obama on Libya in the third debate. He could have hit him after. He never touched him. And the media, therefore, had an excuse to stay away from it. That, I think, would have been devastation for Obama and destruction for Obama."

"And that, I think, would have sealed it," Krauthammer added. "But Romney played it safe."

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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