With each passing week, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, makes statements that challenge the basic operating assumptions of U.S. foreign policy, whether it be through his nonchalance about a trade war with China, repudiation of alliance commitments to NATO and Japan, or honoring the countries’ debts. The question that emerges from this: does the American electorate care?
While presidential candidates have to pass some semblance of a commander in chief test of credibility with the electorate, the conventional wisdom is that foreign policy rarely matters much in U.S. presidential elections, outside of moments of crisis. See my blog post here, as well as posts by Dan Drezner and Elizabeth Saunders.
A recent example comes from the recent kerfuffle over Ben Rhodes’ New York Times interview. Drezner argues efforts on both sides of the Iran Deal debate last year failed to move the public, mostly because the issue did not resonate with the American people.
This, however, is an unusual year, where we have a Republican candidate in Donald Trump with no government experience who will likely face a Democratic nominee in Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. One or more San Bernadino, Brussels, or Paris-type attacks might make foreign policy more important. Do we have any evidence though to assess this claim or concern?
Recently, Bethany Albertson, Shana Gadarian, and I explored some of these issues on The Monkey Cage using pilot data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) survey nationally representative sample of 1200 Americans. The pilot was internet-based and fielded in January of this year with data collected by YouGov.
Our piece, written in the wake of the Brussels attacks, examined whether and how anxiety about terrorism might affect political attitudes and vote choices this fall. We found that those who were more anxious about terrorism evaluated Trump more favorably, though other polls suggest that people might rally around the candidate with more experience.
That said, we didn’t analyze the question of the relative salience of foreign policy compared to domestic issues. ANES data also allows us to explore issue salience and whether people care about foreign policy in the first place. Here is what I found.