United States President Donald Trump is in the midst of a final campaigning frenzy with the midterm elections scheduled tomorrow. Early voting returns indicate that many voters are unusually engaged for congressional elections with some states approaching levels of turnout in presidential election years.
Yet, it is not just the public in the US who are following the campaign closely. Populations right across the globe are watching the midterms with significant interest, given that the key policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, and the overall, large stakes in play with control of the Congress up for grabs.
Part of the reason for this global appeal is that the midterms are being perceived very much as a referendum on Trump’s first two years in office, and the results may therefore give an early signal as to whether the president will be re-elected in 2020. However, a deeper factor driving foreign interest is the high prominence of international issues in the campaign.
Take the example of the so-called “migrant caravan” of several thousand people, which set off from Honduras several weeks ago, which Trump has asserted Democrats are responsible for, and is now around 1,000 miles away from the Mexico-US border. Well aware that migration issues are salient with much of his Republican supporters, the president has relentlessly used the issue to energise his base, pledging to stop the caravan from passing into the US, deploying military personnel.
Another international issue shaping the campaign is the growing US-China trade and security spat. Last month, Trump sensationally claimed at the United Nations Security Council, without offering evidence in public, that Beijing had been working to interfere in the midterms with the aim of damaging Republicans because of Chinese unhappiness with the White House’s stance towards the Asian giant. This underlines that Trump won the White House in 2016 on an ‘America First’ platform. Here, he is not just engaged in what could become a trade war with China, but also has recently agreed to a re-negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, which is being re-branded as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, after rescinding US involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership with multiple Asian allies.
The high incidence of international issues in this year’s midterm campaign continues a pattern from the 2016 presidential election, which saw Trump’s victory. Pew Research Centre found that year that 34 per cent of the population believed foreign policy was the biggest challenge facing America. By contrast, ‘only’ 23 per cent mentioned domestic, especially economic, problems.
This high salience of foreign compared to economic and wider domestic issues is unusual in the past few decades of US political history. Indeed, it resembles more the first 25 years of the Cold War, from 1948 to 1972, when international security issues dominated the concerns of US voters during campaigns.
By contrast, since the early 1970s, economic and wider domestic matters have tended to be the electorate’s highest priority. For instance, in 2011, before the 2012 presidential election year, some 55 per cent of US citizens cited economic worries as the most important factor facing the country, according to Pew. By contrast, only 6 per cent mentioned foreign policy or other international issues.
Yet, although foreign and security policies have returned to the forefront of the US electorate’s mind, at least temporarily, there are significant differences between now and during the first two decades of the Cold War. This earlier period was characterised by a relative US policy consensus and widespread bipartisan cooperation on foreign and security matters. Today, however, foreign policy is a significantly more divisive topic politically between Democrats and Republicans.
“International issues in the campaign drive global interest in US midterm polls that are perceived as a referendum on Trump’s first two years in office.””
To be sure, this early Cold War consensus can be overstated. Nonetheless, a significant degree of bipartisan agreement on foreign affairs, and wider political decorum, did exist until breaking apart in the late 1960s under the strain of the Vietnam War debacle and the demise of the notion of monolithic Communism in light of the Sino-Soviet split.
In recent years, no clear foreign and security policy consensus has emerged. For instance, many Republicans and Democrats differ significantly on how they view the power and standing of the US internationally; on the degree to which the country should be unilateralist; in their attitudes towards the campaign against terrorism and the methods by which they are being fought; and on what the core priorities of foreign policy should be.
Barring a potentially seismic economic development, such as a massive Wall Street stock market crash, it is likely that the current relatively high salience of foreign issues will remain a key driver of the rest of the campaign. And the partisan splits on these topics will reinforce high rates of political polarisation in the US electorate.
Taken overall, foreign policy and security issues are likely to remain a key feature of the remainder of the campaign. Partisan divisions have prevented the establishment of a foreign policy consensus in recent years, and the gaps between Republicans and Democrats on these issues may have only widened during this potentially crucial midterm election, which could determine the fate of Trump’s presidency.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.