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Will Foreign Policy Matter in the 2024 Presidential Election? 

Experts discuss whether voters will be swayed by what the United States does abroad.

Words: Jordan Tama, Jeffrey A. Friedman, Sahar Khan, Ali Wyne, Christopher Preble, Mir Mohiuddin

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program. The series stems from the group’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. It aims to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise.

With the United States involved in major crises across the globe, the question of how the presidential candidates will approach foreign policy is an important question as the election cycle revs up. While foreign policy usually takes a backseat to the economy as the primary issue voters care about, Biden and Trump may find that their plans for US engagement abroad could ultimately move the needle.

February’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy roundtable discussion brought members of the foreign policy community together to examine the claim that foreign policy will make it to the ballot this year. The debate tackled not only the foreign policy issues most likely to play a role in the election, but examples from past presidential contests in which foreign policy had significant influence. The group largely agreed that the war in Gaza, fear over rising tensions with China, and immigration are of interest to voters. There was also agreement that the war in Ukraine had lost salience. Opinions were more divided on what effect the prominent foreign policy issues would ultimately have on the election. Some participants focused on the importance of younger voters, who appear to care more deeply about US actions abroad. Others discussed how perceptions of presidential candidates personality, whether they are seen as strong or weak, compares with views of specific policies. 

Below, six participants from the roundtable provide their perspectives on the role foreign policy may play in the upcoming presidential election.

Jordan Tama, Provost Assistant Professor, American University – Department of Foreign Policy and Global Security

It’s a truism that foreign policy does not matter a great deal in US elections. But it is sometimes on the ballot. In 2006 and 2008, voter dissatisfaction with the Iraq war contributed to the Democratic Party’s takeover of congressional control and Barack Obama’s election as president. In 1980, a widespread view that the United States was losing ground to the Soviet Union influenced Ronald Reagan’s defeat of incumbent Jimmy Carter. 

As Christopher Preble has observed, there are signs that foreign policy may also matter a lot in this year’s election. In a recent AP/NORC poll, 38% of Americans named foreign policy as one of the five most important issues for the U.S. government to work on in 2024, up from 18% a year earlier.

Two ingredients tend to be needed in order for foreign policy to influence an election: 1) a highly salient international crisis; and 2) clear foreign policy differences between the competing candidates. Assuming this year’s election pits Joe Biden against Donald Trump, both of these ingredients may be present on a few issues.

Immigration belongs at the top of the list. More than three-quarters of Americans perceive the current situation at the US border with Mexico as a crisis or major problem, and, despite Biden’s recent moves toward greater emphasis on securing the border, there remain sizable gaps between Biden’s policies and the more punitive and militarized approach of Trump.

The Israel-Hamas war is also quite salient today and there are differences between Trump’s entirely pro-Israel orientation and Biden’s effort to balance support for Israel with support for Palestinian rights. But this may not be very evident to voters since Trump has been relatively quiet on the issue, simply stating that he would let the war “play out,” most likely calculating that it is to his advantage to keep the public spotlight on the issue on Biden.

Differences are starker between Biden and Trump on the war in Ukraine, but the war is not a major focus of public attention now.  Biden and Trump are also sharply divided on NATO policy, but it’s unlikely that many Americans will vote based on this difference. On some important foreign policy issues, such as China and trade, the differences between Biden and Trump do not seem to be large enough for the issues to have large electoral implications.

All that said, it’s worth noting, as Jeff Friedman has shown, that when it comes to foreign policy, Americans often vote based on the perceived personality traits of the candidates, rather than based on the candidates’ positions on specific issues. We should also keep in mind that, while the precise role of foreign policy in the 2024 election remains to be seen, the outcome of the election, as Elizabeth Saunders has explained, will surely have major implications for America’s role in the world.

Jeffrey A. Friedman, Associate Professor of Government, Dartmouth College

Scholars and practitioners frequently claim that foreign policy plays little role in presidential elections. It indeed appears to be true that individual foreign policy issues do not make much difference at the ballot box. For example, in a recent book examining the impact of foreign policy on presidential politics, I estimate that voters’ assessments of how George W. Bush handled the Iraq War swayed just 1-2 percentage points of presidential voting in 2004.

Yet, the role that foreign policy plays in presidential politics generally has less to do with voters’ policy preferences than with their beliefs about which leaders have the right personal attributes to serve as a competent commander-in-chief. These judgments – which typically revolve around whether presidential candidates seem like strong leaders who can stick up for US interests on the international stage – play a significantly greater role in shaping electoral outcomes than voters’ assessments of where presidential candidates stand on foreign policy issues.

For example, a recent survey I conducted asking citizens to explain why they thought Joe Biden would do a better job handling foreign policy than Donald Trump found that voters were twice as likely to base these judgments on personal attributes such as strength and decisiveness rather than describing specific elements of those leaders’ foreign policy platforms. Those patterns are even starker in American National Election Studies surveys, which have asked voters to identify positive and negative characteristics of every major presidential candidate since 1952. Those data show that voters are roughly three times as likely to cite leaders’ personal traits as reasons to think they would do a good job of handling international affairs as opposed to praising or critiquing their stances on individual policy issues.

The importance of leaders’ personal images in this election will likely be exacerbated by widespread perceptions that the world is in crisis due to factors such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the rise of China, and increasing strains on global democracy. Voters who are more sensitive to global threats tend to attach a higher priority to electing presidents who seem like strong leaders. This pattern does not bode well for President Joe Biden, given that roughly three-quarters of voters believe he is too old to be an effective commander-in-chief. Of course, former President Donald Trump is no spring chicken himself, but Trump’s reputation for combativeness insulates him against perceptions of being a weak leader. 

Sahar Khan, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, South Asia Program, Stimson Center

US primaries have begun and something extraordinary happened in Michigan: 101,449 voters wrote in “uncommitted.” This group of Americans was basically lodging a complaint against President Joe Biden for his — and his administration’s — conduct during Israel’s war on Gaza.

The Michigan primary on Feb. 27 highlights two important trends during this election year. The first trend is that Muslim voters, specifically Arab Americans, are a sizable interest group and voting bloc, and so their demands need to be heard. In this case, the demand is for the United States to push for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Voters in Michigan were the first to show their frustration of the Biden administration’s various vetoes for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council at the ballot box. The second, and more interesting trend, has been how voters perceive “strength.” It is difficult to determine why voters vote the way they do, but when it comes down to it, voters want a “strong” commander-in-chief. Oftentimes, the perception of strength is tied to hawkish foreign policies, which also explains why war-time presidents tend to win reelections.

What does a “strong” leader look like in 2024? The American electorate is young: Millennials are the largest generation in the United States today, and are currently 25-40 years old. Combined with their younger siblings, they will be the majority of the electorate by the 2028 election. They are also the US’ first “digital generation,” and rely on social media for world news. Social media’s ability to document war in real-time means that young voters are constantly watching US foreign policy play out in one form or another. In other words, foreign policy may no longer be a second- or third-tier issue for young voters, and how they define “strength” and perceive a “strong” leader may be different than other, older generations. While some may say that Biden’s stance against Hamas and support for Israel makes him a strong leader, others may say that his inability to convince Israel to agree to a ceasefire indicates a poor Middle East policy, and hence, makes him a weak leader. But perhaps for young voters, it’s neither.

A strong leader should ­— and can — be someone who can say no to a close ally. In the current climate, a strong candidate would be one who questions the United States’ blind support of Israel as it continues to detain, kill, and starve Palestinians in Gaza. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at what happened on Super Tuesday. Even in states that didn’t have a write-in option, many voted for someone other than Biden, not because they like the other candidate but to show their frustration of Biden’s (dare I say weak?) policy toward Israel.

In other words, building a temporary port in Gaza (after air dropping aid in Rafah) while bypassing Congress to give more arms to Israel as it commits war crimes is not “strength” but regular hypocrisy — and voters can see that.  

Ali Wyne, Senior Research & Advocacy Advisor for US-China Relations, International Crisis Group

While foreign policy issues are, as usual, unlikely to drive American voters’ decisions in this year’s presidential election, the contest will nonetheless further clarify the extent to which the nominees differ over the role that the United States should play in the world.

The incumbent, Joe Biden, has reinvigorated core US alliances and partnerships in Europe and the Indo-Pacific and worked to integrate those relationships. His likely opponent, Donald Trump, regards those relationships with suspicion, assessing that an “America First” disposition is necessary to prevent freeriding by the country’s traditional friends. Their contrasting views will offer voters a stark choice.

Congress is divided on foreign policy as well. Arguably more notable than the gaps between Republicans and Democrats are those within the Republican Party, where an increasingly influential far-right contingent dubbing itself the Freedom Caucus contends with a legacy faction that warns against narrowing the country’s external commitments. The Republicans’ narrow majority in the House of Representatives has imbued this small, Trump-aligned group with outsized influence. The two-year mark of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has spotlighted that intraparty division: with the Freedom Caucus continuing to block the passage of a major aid package that is critical for Ukraine’s defense, some Republicans argue that Washington would be less capable of bolstering Taipei’s ability to protect itself were it to continue providing military support for Kyiv; others maintain that the two efforts are inextricably intertwined.

There is also a generational divide in the electorate: in addition to questioning the utility of military power in advancing US national interests, younger Americans are more likely to advocate a foreign policy that prioritizes transnational challenges including climate change over great-power competition.

Whether Biden or Trump is reelected, the next US president will likely have to grapple with a more challenging external environment, including an emboldened and aggressive Russia that has upended the European security architecture, a persistently volatile Middle East, and a growing cauldron of security risks in Asia. America’s confrontations with major powers in the mid- and late-twentieth century concluded decisively—Japan and Germany surrendered, ending World War II, and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War — but those victories have receded as strategic frictions with Russia and China have intensified. At the same time, nonaligned — or, if you prefer, multialigned — powers such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam wield increasing geopolitical sway.

The United States remains the world’s most powerful country, but charting a path forward in a changing world will not be easy. Big choices loom. Perhaps most important, the next president will be in a position to decide whether the United States largely goes it alone, exerting its influence in the service of a fundamentally transactional foreign policy, or collaborates with longstanding partners and nurtures new relationships in support of an international order where might does not always make right. 

Christopher Preble Senior Fellow and Director,  Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program, Stimson Center
Mir Mohiuddin, Intern, Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program, Stimson Center

Campaigns are expensive. Candidates in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections spent $14.4 billion trying to get elected or reelected. Funding is the vital prerequisite for staffing, advertising, canvassing, and other campaign activities. In order to persuade voters, political candidates must secure contributions from donors, a much smaller pool of people; only 1.44% of Americans contributed more than $200 to federal candidates in the 2020 elections.

Of course, donors are not a monolith. They have a wide range of views on domestic and foreign policy issues. Overall, however, donors’ positions on foreign policy may vary markedly and consistently from those of non-donor voters, affecting the salience of that issue in the minds of candidates. Survey data indicates that “both parties’ donors, but especially Democratic donors, are more pro-globalism than their citizen counterparts.” Donors, for example, are less likely than non-donor voters to agree with the claim that “we should pay less attention to the problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.”

Moreover, donors may value a different set of personality traits in candidates than voters; these could include good time management, cost consciousness, and other managerial skills. On the other hand, while evidence indicates that voters do value stability and conscientiousness, they also prefer hawkish leaders who project strength.

The donor versus voter divide may be shrinking, however. Small donors, those giving $200 or less, are increasing as a share of total campaign funding. In the 2020 election, “small donors accounted for 23 percent of total fundraising…up from 15 percent in 2016.” Most strikingly, the 2020 Trump re-election campaign raised over half its money from small donors. Trump’s America First populism, so different from the views of elites and many large donors, may explain his appeal to voters who welcome the focus on domestic priorities, and who demonstrate their loyalty through relatively modest yet rising financial contributions.

Jordan Tama, Jeffrey A. Friedman, Sahar Khan, Ali Wyne, Christopher Preble, Mir Mohiuddin

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