Uri Friedman writes: 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. [Continue reading…]