Presidential Debate: Why the Focus on Foreign, and Not Economic, Issues Was Unusual

Monday’s first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was dominated by foreign and national security policy. The candidates clashed on wide-ranging issues from NATO to North Korea, and Russia to Iraq.

The debate was watched not just by a massive audience in the United States, but also across the globe. Given the major differences between Trump and Clinton, and the large stakes in play, international audiences are showing a very keenest interest in the election outcome.

A key reason driving global interest is the high salience of international issues in the campaign. For instance, a Pew Research Center Poll at the beginning of this election year found that 34 percent of the U.S. population believes foreign policy, especially tackling international terrorism, is the biggest challenge facing the country. By contrast, ‘only’ 23 percent mentioned economic problems.

The higher salience of foreign compared to economic issues is unusual in the past few decades. Indeed, it resembles the first 25 years of the Cold War, from 1948 to 1972, when international security issues dominated the concerns of U.S. voters during presidential campaigns.

By contrast, since the early 1970s, economic matters have tended to be the electorate’s highest priority. For instance, in December 2011, just before the last presidential election year in 2012, some 55 percent of U.S. citizens cited economic worries as the most important facing the country, according to Pew. By contrast, only 6 percent mentioned foreign policy or other international issues.

The centrality of foreign and security policy issues in this year's election largely reflects U.S. concerns about terrorism. When the Pew poll was taken, post the Paris attacks in 2015, and the atrocity in San Bernardino, California, almost 18 percent of the population believed that the terrorist danger is the biggest issue facing the country. And an additional 7 percent of voters asserted that the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) specifically (as distinct from terrorism in general), or the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, are the priority number one for the nation.

These numbers will have been buoyed by further terrorist attacks, including the ones this month in New York and New Jersey. The apparently lone attacker allegedly responsible for those atrocities, an Afghan-born US citizen, may have been radicalized on trips to Pakistan.

Although foreign and security policy has returned to the forefront of the U.S. 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 characterized by a relative policy consensus and widespread bi-partisan cooperation on foreign and security matters.

Today, however, this policy area is significantly more divisive politically, as is underlined by the attacks by Republican candidates on President Barack Obama, and Clinton—his former secretary of state. For instance, Trump asserts that “Obama’s foreign policy is a complete and total disaster—the worst president we have ever had”, while Obama and Clinton have described Trump as unfit to be president.

To be sure, the 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.

No clear foreign and security policy consensus has emerged in recent years. For instance, many Republicans and Democrats differ significantly on how they view the power and standing of the United States internationally; on the degree to which the country should be unilateralist; in their attitudes toward the campaign on terrorism and the methods by which they are being fought; and on what the priorities of foreign policy should be.

An example here is the campaign against ISIS where Trump has called for more much hard-line actions. This includes a fundamentally different military strategy, including potential ‘carpet-bombing,’ which appears to involve intensification of U.S. military commitments in the Middle East.

Barring a significant economic development in coming weeks, it is likely that the current high salience of foreign and security issues will remain a central aspect of politics for the rest of the election year. And the partisan splits on these topics will reinforce high rates of political polarization in the U.S. electorate, and also global interest in the race.

Indeed, it is likely that the international focus on the race will be even higher than in 2012. Then, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project report, more than a third of populations in countries as diverse as Britain, Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, China, India, and Japan where either “closely or somewhat closely” following the presidential campaign.

Taken overall, foreign policy and security issues are likely to maintain their high salience in this year’s U.S. election as Monday’s debate showed, especially if there are further terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland. Partisan divisions have prevented the establishment of a foreign policy consensus in recent years, and the gaps between the parties on these issues may only widen during the remainder of this crucial election year.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.