The University of Texas at Austin- What Starts Here Changes the World
Services Navigation

Will Foreign Policy Win the Vote?: University experts examine role of international affairs in elections past and present

“Will Foreign Policy Win the Vote?” is the second story in Think Democracy, a seven-part series focused on the upcoming presidential election. As the nation approaches the November election, experts from The University of Texas at Austin will offer their perspectives on a range of issues and topics. Future stories will look at Social Security and the baby boomer vote, first ladies, the youth vote and communications during the presidential debates. Watch for a new Think Democracy feature every month through November.

Knowing that presidential elections can turn on a dime, experts are hesitant to predict what will drive the vote in November. But with the war in Iraq and national security ranking with the economy and jobs as critical issues on the minds of voters, one thing is clear. How each candidate approaches the United States’ relationship to the rest of the world just might be the key to winning the vote this year.

1916 campaign button for Woodrow Wilson
1916 campaign button
for Woodrow Wilson.

“We can talk about elections as a kind of balance between two agendas,” says Elspeth Rostow, professor emerita and former dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. “The domestic agenda on the one side, the foreign policy agenda on the other. You look at it and ask which side of the ledger was more important in a given election.”

It won’t be clear which side will be more important in 2004 until after the November 2 results are in, but foreign policy is impossible to ignore this campaign season. In a recent CBS News Poll, the war in Iraq was named as the issue voters would most like to hear the candidates discuss. In an April ABC News/ Washington Post poll nearly 50 percent of respondents named either the war in Iraq or the campaign against terrorism as the single most important issue for their vote.

Foreign policy always has been critical in American politics. We are, after all, a nation that began as a British colony and won its independence through an international war. However, weighing the role of foreign policy in individual elections can be tricky. It always matters, but voters don’t say how much until they head to the polls.

The timeline below details some of the foreign policy issues at play in most of the elections since Woodrow Wilson won in 1916 with the “He Kept Us Out of War” slogan.

To view the timeline, click on any year to get further information about foreign policy in that election. Or use the arrows above the timeline to move through history, election to election. The timeline also indicates the years of U.S. military involvement in major wars beginning with World War I. Download free Macromedia Flash Player.

The election of 1916 illustrated something critical about foreign policy talk during a campaign season: it doesn’t fall exclusively on American ears.

“Presidential rhetoric geared to the task of winning an election could appear to outside ears to be a guarantee of future policy,” says Rostow.

In 1916, World War I had already been waged in Europe for two years when both Wilson, the incumbent, and his challenger, Charles E. Hughes, campaigned on a platform of American neutrality. This may have eased the nerves of the American public, but it was also noted by overseas powers.

“In 1916 the message went to the German general staff that America was going to be neutral,” says Rostow. “Almost immediately they cranked up the submarine campaign on the grounds that they could do anything and the U.S. would still stay out.”

The U.S. entered the war in April 1917, just a month after Wilson’s second inauguration, not long after a German U-boat sank the Lusitania and Germany announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Wilson, who campaigned with a promise to avert war, was now a war president.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill seated together in Teheran, Iran
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill in Teheran, Iran, Nov. 29, 1943, their first meeting together. They declared they left “friends, in fact, in spirit and in purpose.”

In February, President Bush identified himself as a war president as well in an interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press. Democratic contender John Kerry has given much of his campaign time in the past month to laying out his proposed policy around the war in Iraq. And for much of the spring the respective Vietnam records of both candidates were splashed across the headlines.

How each candidate would use the U.S. military power is clearly a primary foreign policy issue in this election.

However things unfold, the framing of the candidates’ debate over the use of military has already occurred, says Dr. Bruce Buchanan, an expert on presidential politics and professor in the Department of Government.

“In some ways the interesting thing right now is that there’s a convergence of their positions, but there are still differences,” says Buchanan. “President Bush would still say, I think, though he hasn’t said so lately, that he’s not going to seek anybody’s permission to take military action. He’s identified with the preemptive doctrine.”

“Kerry speaks of a doctrine of prevention rather than preemption, which means trying to head off the need to use the military in a proactive way. Though Kerry does say that he would if he had to.”

In past elections, the impact of war on the vote has varied. In 1952, General Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for election against former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. The Cold War had begun five years earlier and American troops were fighting in Korea. Eisenhower, commanding general of the victorious forces in Europe during World War II, seemed the likeliest choice for a nation under threat.

Buchanan looks to the election of 1972 to draw the closest parallels with our current situation. By the election of 1968 the war in Vietnam was already a divisive issue, but the chaos at home ultimately proved to be primary at the polls. In 1972, the war was slightly less divisive, but still on the minds of voters.

“In 1972 Richard Nixon was running against George McGovern with McGovern advocating bailing out of Vietnam and Nixon promising to stay the course and achieve peace with honor,” says Buchanan.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office
President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office, Feb. 29, 1956. Eisenhower, a hero of World War II, was elected during the Korean War.

Photo #72-1629-8: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

The election in 1972 decimated McGovern and the Democrats, however, even with the first tremors of Watergate already being felt. Rostow attributes the extreme nature of this election to the public perception that McGovern sat too far to the left.

“It’s interesting, because voters get an impression of a candidate quite early and it’s pretty hard to change,” says Rostow. “McGovern was tied with three issues—the AAA issues: acid, meaning the legalization of marijuana; abortion; and amnesty. What he tried to do in the summer of ’72 was detach himself from the left and move to the center, but it was too late.”

In that election, there was a foreign policy problem with the American people unhappy with the war, but there were also candidates who were substantially at odds with one another. Buchanan says the difference was much starker than the one we find today with Bush and Kerry.

“Bush and Kerry have pretty much agreed on what the next president is going to have to do,” he says. “Most notably, see the Iraqi venture through to some sort of responsible conclusion. They also pretty much agree that the terror war is going to continue and that there’s going to be a need to reach out to the Islamic world.”

The means, in this case, are more at question than the ends, at least in the campaign rhetoric.

A president who is strong during wartime is still not guaranteed reelection, as the election of 1992 illustrates. While the Gulf War had been over for a year when campaigning began, sitting President George Bush had enjoyed enormous popularity after the war, with approval ratings at a staggering 89 percent in 1991. His standing was so strong that many Democratic candidates chose not to enter the race.

“The sacrificial lamb concept didn’t appeal in ’92,” says Rostow.

However, Bush’s challenger, Bill Clinton, ended up not being a sacrificial lamb after all. Even with the war over, Bush didn’t turn to the domestic agenda. His approval ratings took a nosedive to 29 percent in 1992, and voters voted not based on a past war, but on current conditions at home. Clinton aide James Carville turned out to be right when he said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

President Bush riding in an armored jeep with General Norman Schwarzkopf
President Bush riding in an armored jeep with General Norman Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 1990. Bush enjoyed great popularity after the Gulf War.

This year, voters will be paying attention to the economy and to the war in Iraq, but the campaign against terrorism will also be driving their decisions. This ongoing campaign bears some resemblance to the Cold War, which factored into elections from the late 1940s to the early 1990s. With the fight against terrorism, however, determining whom we are fighting against is more complicated.

“We now have so many places from which the threat of terrorism can emanate it makes one nostalgic for the time when we just worried about what was going on at the Kremlin,” says Rostow.

Happenings at the Kremlin were very much on voters’ minds during the election of 1960. Much is made of the contrast between the young, charismatic John F. Kennedy and the older, wearier Richard Nixon in this election, which offered voters the first televised presidential debates. These years later, it’s easy to forget why Nixon at the time seemed the more obvious choice.

As Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon had taken on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the so-called “kitchen debate” in Moscow in 1959. His performance—a verbal sparring in a model kitchen exhibit at the U.S. Trade and Cultural Fair—was heralded, and it suggested a forceful, competent leader.

1972 campaign button for Richard Nixon
1972 campaign button
for Richard Nixon.

Kennedy campaigned on the “missile gap,” the alleged superiority of Soviet nuclear weaponry over American weaponry. The missile gap was exaggerated, but it tapped into the American public’s fear about a potential nuclear attack and helped Kennedy win the election.

“It’s often argued that the first time we felt vulnerable was 9/11,” says Rostow, “but that’s not really true. We felt very vulnerable during the Cold War, and elections during that time show it.”

The Cold War arguably had an impact on every election from 1948 through 1988, with particularly heavy impact in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1976, when sitting President Gerald Ford debated Jimmy Carter, he declared, “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” It was so clearly a snafu that his campaign lost momentum after that and Carter won the election.

Carter himself, however, wasn’t helped when four years later the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the president said he’d learned more about the Soviets in the previous week than he had in all his previous life. Ultimately, foreign policy debacles like the Iran hostage crisis led to his loss in 1980 to Ronald Reagan.

“Reagan doesn’t do much with foreign policy immediately after his inaugural except use the phrase ‘evil empire’ to describe the Soviet Union,” says Rostow.

President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev
President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the first Summit in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 19, 1985.

Soviet relations are a key foreign policy issue during Reagan’s years in office, as retrospectives presented after the former president’s recent death have shown. During his eight years in office Gorbachev took the helm in the Soviet Union and by the mid-’80s he and Reagan were holding summits. In 1987 the Soviet leader visited the White House.

In the post-Cold War era, foreign policy was more difficult to define and domestic issues were primary drivers in the elections. The ’90s, however, were not a peaceful era. Concerns about nuclear proliferation and weapons of mass destruction remained. The first attacks on the World Trade Center and the embassy bombings showed the world was not a safe place. It was the idea of a threat that was changing and that challenged political candidates.

“There’s no coherent response in the ’90s to what we should do,” says Rostow. “It’s very easy to construct a foreign policy and argue it in an election when you have a state that is your enemy. It’s very hard to construct a policy if at any moment you can have attacks on the embassies.

“The world as we know it is already showing what its nature will be by the 2000 election,” she says.

Fast forward to 2004 and where are we? Both candidates have named national security as their primary campaign platform, though the polls and the headlines seem to drive where they put their emphasis at any time.

Bush and Kerry both spent late May and early June laying out and reinforcing their foreign policy stances. They differ and they converge.

“The remarkable point here is that they are agreed on the big agenda for the next presidency, whoever is in this seat,” says Buchanan.

1992 campaign button for Bill Clinton
1992 campaign button
for Bill Clinton.

When looking at their differences, Buchanan points out the following:

  • Kerry had made a pledge to push the U.S. toward energy independence. Bush has focused mostly on increasing the nation’s access to oil reserves.
  • In terms of unfolding the new government in Iraq, Kerry has advocated a U.N. high commissioner in Iraq and Bush has resisted that on the grounds that the Iraqis don’t trust the U.N.
  • Kerry has talked about the need to confront Saudi Arabia and Bush makes no pretense of wanting to drastically alter the U.S.’s relationship with the country.
  • The tone of their approaches to military action differ, with Bush advocating preemption and Kerry prevention.

The weeks and months ahead will offer each candidate an opportunity to refine and redefine their positions and the voters a chance to weigh their differences.

When asked how important foreign policy will ultimately be in this election, Buchanan admits it’s hard to tell.

“The answer to that question is very event sensitive,” he says. “How that’s going to play out really depends on what happens between now and November.”

Vivé Griffith

Related Stories:

Related Sites:

Office of Public Affairs
P.O. Box Z
Austin, Texas

Fax 512-471-5812

  Updated 2014 October 13
  Comments to