11 Charts That Track the Weight of Foreign Policy in U.S. Primary Debates

Candidates have faced fewer global questions since the elections of 2004 and 2008, but China and trade have remained consistently popular topics.

(Updated Jan. 16, 2020)

(Updated Jan. 16, 2020)

The seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 U.S. presidential election showed signs of a revitalized interest in foreign policy. Even with the first two debates split into two consecutive nights, more foreign-policy questions were asked at the Jan. 14 debate—22, counting follow-up questions—than any other event so far. And with the debate schedule more than halfway complete, candidates have been asked more foreign-policy questions on average per debate than any election in 16 years.

But even as President Donald Trump’s military brinkmanship with Iran and tariff war with China have kept foreign news in the headlines, it remains unclear how long the heightened attention on foreign policy in this election will last, compared with previous ones. 

To help answer these questions, Foreign Policy tracked down the foreign-policy questions asked at primary debates going back 20 years. Debate transcripts were available from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the video archives at C-SPAN. In some instances, transcripts did not exist. If the video footage was available, we watched and transcribed the debates ourselves.

What constitutes a foreign-policy question? We divided them into 13 different key topics. Most topics are commonly occurring countries of interest, but we also included categories for terrorism and trade. We started with the 2000 election year, because it was the last election before 9/11 and the first of the 21st century. We have also begun tracking the questions asked during the 2020 debates, although bear in mind that the sample size is small so far. But as seen in the chart below, there have already been nearly as many foreign-policy questions asked this season as the entire 2000 primary debate cycle.

Here are our key takeaways:

Foreign policy was discussed more in 2004 and 2008 than any other election year

In tracking foreign-policy questions, we counted both the original questions asked by the moderators and any follow-up questions of substance. This chart shows that the most foreign-policy questions were asked at the debates in 2008.

The problem, however, is that the 2008 election year also included the most debates: 31 between the two parties. For 2004, on the other hand, there were only seven debates for which transcripts could be obtained—a figure driven down partially by the fact that only the Democrats had primaries.

So, to show the concentration of foreign-policy questions in each debate cycle, Foreign Policy charted the mean for each year as well—the number of questions over the course of the primary divided by the number of debates. That figure allows us to see how many foreign-policy questions were asked on average in each debate and to distinguish between the two parties.

Under that metric, the most foreign-policy-heavy debate cycle was actually 2004, the year after the United States entered the Iraq War. In that cycle, Democratic candidates were asked an average 12.7 foreign-policy questions per debate. The year 2000, conversely, saw the least discussion of foreign policy, likely because the post-9/11 wars had yet to begin: In that election cycle, Republicans saw an average 3.1 foreign-policy questions per debate, while Democrats saw less than one, on average.

If one counts the first two rounds as two combined debates (the June and July debates were both split into two evenings), the 2020 election year has so far seen the most foreign-policy questions on average per debate since 2004, with an average of 8.29 questions in each Democratic debate. The election of Donald Trump has led to several questions on trade but also a new category: The role of the United States in a post-Trump world. While the 2016 debates had slightly fewer foreign-policy questions than 2008 overall, they had slightly more questions on average per debate when the two parties were combined. But splitting those figures up by party reveals stark differences: In 2016, for example, Republicans faced an average 5.6 questions per debate, while the Democrats faced only two. That’s in large part because of our second takeaway.

Republicans take more global questions than Democrats

In every election year with dual primaries, Republicans consistently received more questions about foreign policy.

According to Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, Republicans tend to talk about foreign policy more in part because they express more dissatisfaction with the U.S. role in the world.  “If you hold constant post-9/11 and war, on the Republican side, foreign-policy engagement … has often focused on criticism of foreign aid, criticism of engagement in the world in the sense of the U.N., things like that,” he said. “That sort of thing doesn’t really dominate Democratic debates.”

And outside circumstances usually play an important role. The most foreign-policy discussion occurred during the Democratic primary debates of 2004, when interest in Iraq surged.

The most consistent foreign-policy topics are Iraq, China, terrorism, and trade

How has the discussion of foreign policy shifted since 2000? To answer that question, we tallied the number of questions relating to each of our 13 topics for each year, and we graphed the results:

Foreign-Policy Topics in Primary Debates, 2000-2016

Based on a Foreign Policy review of debate transcripts and video footage from 102 of 117 debates.


While Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria only became popular topics in the last decade, Iraq and terrorism often came up in debate questions even before 9/11. China and trade were the most frequently discussed topics in 2000 and remained prominent in candidates’ conversations all the way into the 2016 race. Given the Trump administration’s trade war with China, both topics have notably resurfaced in 2020.

Ironically, least discussed of those we tracked were the two countries geographically closest to the United States: Cuba and Venezuela.

2000: Democrats talk Russia, Republicans debate how to trade with China

The 2000 primary debates ran during the longest economic boom in U.S. history and nearly a decade since a formal declaration of war. Sept. 11 was over a year away. No wonder foreign policy came up fewer times than any other election this century.

In an election season frequently oriented around what to do with the country’s budget surplus, even the foreign-policy questions often dealt with the economy. Trade was a frequent topic, particularly with China. Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican front-runners, were strong advocates for free trade and allowing Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization.

“I think if we trade with China and trade with the entrepreneurial class and give people a breath of freedom, give them a taste of freedom, I think you’ll be amazed … at how soon democracy will come,” Bush said in December 1999. Ouch.

No Democratic primary debate included more than three foreign-policy questions, and at least two had no foreign-policy questions at all. But when foreign policy was discussed, Russia came up most often, particularly the ongoing war in Chechnya and why relations with the country had declined under Clinton.

Iraq was brought up three times each for the Democrats and Republicans. At the Dec. 2, 1999, Republican debate, moderator Brit Hume asked Bush, “Saddam Hussein is still [in Iraq]. What would you do about that, if anything, that is different from what President Clinton has done?”

“If I found in any way, shape or form that he was developing weapons of mass destruction, I’d take ’em out,” Bush declared. “I’m surprised he’s still there. I think a lot of other people are as well.”

“Take him out?” Hume asked.

Bush (sort of) clarified: “To out the weapons of mass destruction.”

The 2004 Democratic primary debates were all about Iraq

President George W. Bush declared the end of combat operations in Iraq in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner on May 1, 2003, just two days before the first Democratic primary debate. By the last primary debate on Feb. 29, 2004, the war seemed so intractable that candidate Sen. John Kerry was asked whether he would reinstate the draft.

Only seven debate transcripts could be obtained, but more foreign-policy questions were asked per debate than any other election cycle we studied. Thirty-one questions involved Iraq, more than twice as many as the next most common foreign-policy topic. Was the war a mistake? What’s your exit strategy? In the Jan. 4, 2004, debate, several questions were asked about the implications of Saddam Hussein’s capture the previous month.

And yet despite the military conflicts, a New Hampshire poll showed that the two issues voters cared about most were the economy and health care, according to one of the debate moderators. There were seven questions involving trade, stemming from concerns about the rise of outsourcing and the impact of NAFTA and the WTO. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the one candidate who voted against the war in Iraq, was also the only candidate at the debates who advocated withdrawing from both.

2008: Democrats cover everything, especially Iraq, while Republicans focus mostly on Iraq

By a slim margin, the 2008 primary season had the most foreign-policy questions overall, weighing in with 217.

Unsurprisingly, Iraq dominated the discourse. Four years into the war and amid the January 2007 surge of troops on the ground, candidates were grilled on their plans to end the war in Iraq and forced to defend their votes for the conflict. And when Gen. David Petraeus reported to Congress in September 2007 that the surge had seen successful in reducing violence, questions about Iraq spiked for both parties.

The focus on foreign policy was driven in part by the possibility of a general election contest between McCain, a foreign-policy heavyweight, and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, a relative novice in the area, as both men emerged as strong contenders in their respective primaries.

Aside from Iraq, however, the Democratic field—which included not only Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton but also 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden, among others—discussed more foreign-policy topics, and more intently.

The Democrats talked more than twice as much about trade over the course of the 2008 primary, and they discussed China three times as much as the Republicans did. The Democrats also faced more questions on Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela.

In a season of debates dominated by the Iraq quagmire, the Republican field again led the way in the number of questions as both sides had to confront the foremost foreign-policy question on voters’ minds. But at a moment when their party was forced to reckon with President George W. Bush’s two-term legacy abroad, Republicans often avoided other topics of foreign-policy discussion, leaving the Democrats to step up to the podium.

The 2012 Republicans wanted to get tough

Republican presidential candidates argued their way through a staggering 20 debates during the 2012 primaries. But with U.S. military operations ending in Iraq, Osama bin Laden dead, a slow recovery from the Great Recession, and the arrival of several Tea Party Republicans into Congress, the number of foreign-policy questions per debate dwindled from the previous two elections. Three debates included only one such question.

More frequently discussed were economic issues, such as who had the more aggressive tax cuts, who could be trusted to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, who would eliminate more government departments, etc.

The 2011 Arab Spring resulted in a sharp uptick of questions regarding Syria, which was never even brought up during the 2008 Republican primaries. The most popular topic, however, was Iran. New evidence suggested that the country was developing a nuclear weapon. Would it be worth going to war to prevent this from happening?

Most candidates called for more aggression toward Iran and more government spending on defense. Rep. Ron Paul argued the United States shouldn’t get involved in Iran at all, and his opinion was greeted by the other candidates with about the same enthusiasm as a tax hike.

Afghanistan and Pakistan were also brought up in several questions, especially in the early debates, which followed the May 2, 2011, raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound.

2016: Democrats mostly debated Russia, Syria, and terrorism… but not as much as the Republicans

Over the course of 28 debates—12 Republican primetime, seven Republican “undercard,” and nine Democratic—the 2016 primaries saw roughly 213 foreign-policy questions overall, coming in just under the record-high 2008 primary season.

As always, the Republicans talked more about foreign policy: They had nearly three times as many foreign-policy questions as the Democrats overall and nearly five times as many on average per debate. There was not a single foreign-policy issue that the Democrats discussed more than the Republicans—not Cuba, not China, not even trade.

A few months into primary season, discussion of foreign-policy issues had tanked. An Oct. 28, 2015, Republican debate saw no foreign-policy questions, and its undercard counterpart featured only two.

But a series of attacks by the Islamic State in Paris in November 2015, followed by a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December, drove the discourse, leading to a massive spike in questions about terrorism and about foreign policy more broadly—on the Republican side, at least.

In the wake of the two terrorist attacks, the Republicans talked more not only about terrorism but also about the on-the-ground situations in Iraq and Syria, as well as Russia’s role in the region. The Democrats saw no parallel spike in their discussion of foreign-policy issues.

Though (Republican) candidates spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing terrorism over other foreign-policy issues, certain topics—and even certain phrases—prevailed repeatedly.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz was asked about his infamous promise to “carpet bomb [the Islamic State] into oblivion” on three different occasions. And seven debates asked about technology companies’ trade-off between privacy and helping law enforcement prevent terrorist attacks.

So, over the course of the 2016 primary season, candidates on both sides of the aisle often weren’t saying anything new—or, at least, the moderators weren’t.

  Twitter: @seekayhickey

Maya Gandhi is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MDGANDHI

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