Sorry, GOP: This isn't the foreign policy election you were hoping for

You're probably going to win the midterms, but don't expect a foreign policy mandate

President Barack Obama's foreign policy approval is in a tailspin, and conservative pols and pundits are pouncing. "For the first time since George W. Bush's 2004 reelection Republicans should be eagerly inviting a foreign policy election," writes Hot Air's Noah Rothman.

Indeed, one recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed the president's approval on all affairs foreign to be at a dismal 31 percent. And this poll is no outlier: Obama's foreign policy rating, as Real Clear Politics' roundup of surveys shows, has been in overall decline since this time last year.

Two years of crises have put Obama's foreign policy under a microscope in recent weeks, and Republicans looking to make big gains in this week's midterm elections are hoping that the president's poor approval numbers will not only help carry the party to victory this year, but also help it set the terms for the foreign policy debate in 2016.

But Republicans should tread lightly. Although the president and his party are probably in for a rough week, foreign policy will have very little to do with Tuesday's outcome.

"Squint when you read foreign policy polls," said Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. "People make a dreadful mistake [of] thinking polls are public opinion."

And while individual polls serve as useful tools for measuring voter interest in one of two candidates during an election, they provide a poor sampling of public understanding on complex issues such as the civil war in Syria or the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And though Republicans are hoping to put — and keep — Vladimir Putin and ISIS on the ballot, these issues are unlikely to drive that many voters on Tuesday.

Although terrorism has seen a modest comeback in this election cycle, its long-term significance has steadily declined among Americans since the September 11 attacks. In many cases, these issues only register as important once respondents are prompted to weigh in on them.

"When probed about terrorism specifically, Americans rate it as an important issue and one that they are concerned about," writes Frank Newport of Gallup. "However, without prompting, relatively few Americans mention terrorism as the top problem facing the country, much less than at many other points in time since the 9/11 attacks."

While a variety of issues tend to influence voting behavior in presidential contests, the economy and voter affinity for local incumbents (and whether or not that incumbent is of the sitting president's party) typically play a larger role in deciding House and Senate seats.

None of this is to suggest that the Democrats aren't in trouble. While polls are a less than ideal method for evaluating voter knowledge on foreign policy, they can be very useful for gauging voter intensity. America's military standing and leadership on the world stage has registered as a key issue for Republican voters this year — voters already inclined to vote against President Obama this week.

Partisan splits can be seen on issues ranging from the president's handling of the Ebola outbreak to his level of commitment in the fight against ISIS (Republicans are, predictably, far more concerned than Democrats about Obama's pledge to truly "degrade and ultimately defeat" the terrorist group known as the Islamic State).

But for a better, more instructive survey of American thinking on foreign policy, it's important to observe broader trends in public approval. While some have referred to U.S. foreign policy as "innately Jacksonian," the truth is that Americans have routinely supported multilateral campaigns against not only immediate threats to the country but broader threats against traditional allies in Europe and Asia as well.

Burden sharing is also important to Americans. President George H.W. Bush, for example, saw a rapid reversal in public support for the U.S. mission to expel Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait once the United Nations signed off on the campaign, and public approval for NATO peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia remained high among Americans years after the mission's implementation.

Republicans would thus be wise not to bank on foreign policy once the dust settles from this week's elections. Voter habits and priorities can easily shift from midterm to presidential races, and two years is a long time.


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