No matter who you think won last night's presidential debate, it's unlikely to have much bearing on the presidential election. In the end, voters simply don't care about the issues of foreign policy anywhere near as much as they do about their own economic security.
That, by the way, is the norm for American presidential elections. In the last four presidential cycles, only 2004's matchup between incumbent George W. Bush and John Kerry produced a foreign-policy issue with more mentions as "the most important problem" facing the nation among Gallup's respondents than a domestic-policy issue. Not surprisingly, voters expressed considerable concern over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two major campaign issues in that cycle, with 23 percent listing wars as among their most pressing problems in the final month before the election. The economy in general only got mentioned by 21 percent of respondents, although 12 percent also mentioned unemployment.
However, the economy had begun growing by October 2004, along with jobs, in a noticeable trend. Real GDP growth had improved from 2.7 percent in the first quarter to 3.0 percent in Q3, on its way to 3.3 percent in Q4 and 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2005. The economy added 1.85 million jobs in the first 10 months of 2004.
This election arrives in a much different context. We have not seen 3.0 percent annualized quarterly growth since last year's final quarter, stringing together a 2.0 percent and 1.3 percent annualized rate of real GDP growth in the first two quarters of 2012, and not many prospects for better numbers in the third quarter. We have only added 1.3 million jobs since the beginning of the year, after adding only 1.8 million in 2011 and just 1 million in 2010. Those numbers are not nearly good enough to make a dent in the millions of people who have been chronically unemployed and/or underemployed since the recession officially ended in June 2009. The U.S. fell to a 31-year low in civilian workforce participation this summer, at 63.5 percent. And unlike 2004, voters see no signs that the economy is on a trajectory of improvement.
While foreign policy may be the one arena where presidents have the most impact, it gets the least amount of concern in this cycle.
Gallup's latest polling among American adults confirms this focus. While foreign policy may be the one arena where presidents have the most impact, it gets the least amount of concern in this cycle. This election has the largest percentage of "net economic mentions" of any of the last four cycles — even slightly higher than 2008, in the middle of the panic over the possible collapse of the financial sector (72 percent to 69 percent, respectively). Almost two-thirds of the responses came from "the economy in general" and "unemployment," and 12 percent from the federal budget deficit. The wars, which still got 11 percent of the mentions in 2008, have now dropped to 3 percent in 2012.
These numbers do not change appreciably between men and women, either. In fact, women were slightly more likely to mention the economy and unemployment (64 percent) than men were (62 percent). Health care came in a distant third for women (10 percent), while for men the federal deficit got the bronze (14 percent). Foreign policy only got mentioned by 3 percent of men and 4 percent of women overall — and in a blow to the Obama campaign's attempt to stoke their "war on women" meme, only 1 percent of women even mentioned abortion.
This result shows how out of touch and off-key the Obama campaign has been in the final few weeks of the election. While Obama and Co. focused on Big Bird, voters worried about jobs. While Democrats obsessed about "binders," women across the country were far more concerned with the economy.
Consider this in light of another survey taken last week. The NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll shows Obama and Romney tied among likely voters at 47 percent apiece. However, the same voters want a major change in direction from Obama's first-term policies, by a 2-1 margin at 62 percent to 31 percent. It hardly needs to be said that this is a bad trend for an incumbent, but it's worse for an incumbent who hasn't offered any specific vision for a second term except to continue the policies of the first. With that kind of mandate for change and a president that refuses to offer any, that 47 percent begins to look like a ceiling, especially with voters as focused on economic issues as they are in this election.
The only possible relevance a foreign-policy debate would have on voter behavior in this cycle is as an assessment of the presidential bearing of each candidate. Mitt Romney has been talking about his plans for major changes in economic policy and the erosion of middle-class income during the Obama recovery, while Obama and his team talk about contraception, Planned Parenthood, binders, and Big Bird. That question has already been answered.
Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.