Foreign Policy Matters. Except to Voters

It's generally a bad idea to predict that the next election will be about foreign policy.
What foreign policy experience? 

We have no idea whether foreign policy and national security will be decisive issues in 2016. But it's a good bet they won't be.

Yet here's a Josh Kraushaar column claiming that "worsening crises overseas" are upending the 2016 presidential election. The most dubious part? How he moves from this:

The early conventional wisdom that Republicans need to elect a Washington outsider—a little-known governor with some charisma—looks outdated with growing turbulence abroad.

To this:

For a sign of the GOP worries, just look at whose names have cropped up in the last month as prospective candidates: Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. It's a direct result of the growing anxiety that Republicans lack a statesman-like candidate who can compete with Hillary Clinton on stature.

In other words, Republicans are reacting to the perceived need for foreign policy experience by turning to two former governors with no obvious foreign policy experience.

Yes, several foreign policy issues have been in the news in recent months, and U.S. military action of some kind is expected to continue in Iraq and Syria through the next presidential campaign. But that hardly ensures that they will be voting issues in 2016. Indeed, while some candidates are talking about foreign policy right now, there's little evidence that it's a decisive voting issue in 2014.

Generally, political scientists have found that voters pay little attention to foreign policy unless it involves a war with many casualties, such as Iraq in 2006 or Vietnam in 1968. So far, current actions in Iraq and Syria don't come close to that standard, and events in Ukraine are even less likely to influence votes.

No one knows what will be in the news in coming weeks, let alone months from now. (Kraushaar, who was among those predicting that Obamacare would dominate the 2014 election cycle, should recognize that.) It's possible that the war against Islamic State will settle into the kind of background hum that the war in Afghanistan has been for more than a decade, except with fewer U.S. casualties. It's also possible that Russia and Ukraine won't be among the top five U.S. foreign policy issues two years from now.

The bottom line? If President Barack Obama's foreign policy appears to be such a disaster in November 2016 that voters actively vote on it, it's going to hurt the Democratic candidate no matter what experience or expertise the Republican candidate musters. For now, however, there's no particular reason to believe that 2016 will be an election dominated by foreign policy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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