Foreign affairs might not swing votes this November

Andrew Pritchard

Less than a year ago, Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, said U.S. involvement in international affairs was the best way to avoid future terrorist attacks.

But whether that public concern with international issues remains as strong – and whether it will drive voters’ decisions in November – is an open question.

“There hasn’t been a really convincing, compelling politics of foreign affairs that has emerged,” Harry Boyte. He is the co-director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

Boyte said Americans are more connected to international issues and more concerned about foreign policy since the Sept. 11 attacks, but how the public’s complicated mood will affect election returns is unknown.

“I think it makes people quite attentive but also very confused,” Boyte said.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersch, speaking Thursday in Minneapolis, said last week’s Los Angeles Times poll that showed Americans think most favorably of George W. Bush on terrorism and national security issues will likely prompt the president’s administration to focus on those issues during the rest of the election season.

“They’ve got to keep us scared; they’ve got to keep us jacked up on Iraq,” he said. “All this talk and all this posturing has to have a political core because it’s good politics for Bush” and keeps the public from focusing on recent corporate accounting scandals.

Republican U.S. House candidate Daniel Mathias, running for the 5th District seat currently held by Democrat Martin Sabo, said foreign affairs will be one of the most significant topics in the election.

“Certainly it will be one of the major issues, one of the top three or four people are thinking about,” he said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s campaign spokesman, Jim Farrel, said international issues will be more important to voters this election than in previous years.

“Naturally, there is a good deal of concern about another attack on our nation and an unstable international situation, especially in the Middle East,” he said.

However, Farrel also said polls show voters are more concerned with domestic issues such as education, taxes and corporate accountability than foreign policy questions.

“I think the domestic issues are still going to be more important to the voters,” he said.

Public and foreign affairs

Historically, Americans have often been ignorant about international issues and largely unconcerned with government policies toward them.

“When the world seems calmer, it doesn’t have as much relevance,” Boyte said.

In 1964, only 58 percent of Americans knew the United States was a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. More than one-third thought the Soviet Union was a NATO member, when in fact the alliance was created, in part, to limit Soviet influence.

In a 1984 poll, fewer Americans knew which side the United States supported in the El Salvador and Nicaragua conflicts than would have answered correctly if all respondents had guessed randomly. In a much-publicized 1988 National Geographic Society survey, one in seven Americans could not find the United States on a world map.

During the Vietnam War, polls found that most Americans were concerned about the war, but only 3 percent wrote letters to newspapers or government officials, and 1 percent took part in a march or demonstration.

And although a majority of Americans surveyed by Fox News in April believed ending Middle East violence is essential to stopping terrorism, a poll conducted less than a month later by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found less than one-third of Americans knew more Palestinians than Israelis were killed in Middle East violence in the first four months of this year.

“The United States as a whole has been relatively unaware of the rest of the world,” Boyte said.

However, Boyte said, although politicians usually view public opinion on foreign policy and other topics as something to be manipulated, some officials have tried to draw the public’s attention to international issues.

Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, tried to make human rights a significant issue, Boyte said.

“There have always been political leaders who cared not only about foreign affairs but also about involving citizens in them,” he said.