Believe it or not, foreign policy is a big deal in presidential elections. Our horse race coverage does not have much room for any substantive foreign policy discussion outside of “America good,” but voters consistently rank aspects of foreign policy as one of the five most important factors in deciding their vote. This makes sense, and it means that on the whole, the electorate better understands the job of a president than most of major media.
As exciting as Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill is, or the litany of Liz Warren’s Plans for That are, ultimately, they mean nothing without a Congress able to pass those bills. As far as what the president can directly control, foreign policy is far more within their purview than health care. Most of what a president does each and every day involves things that happen outside the United States, and much of the electorate knows this.
Especially the crucial swing vote of undecideds, who are souring on parts of Trump’s foreign policy agenda. Per Axios:
A new poll designed to test President Trump’s vulnerabilities on foreign policy heading into the 2020 election finds that economic pain from the China trade war, unraveling alliances and Trump’s relations with Russia are of particular concern to swing voters.
The “Undecided” column here is the only one that matters:
You can see why these results are so surprising by just contrasting the specific versus the big picture answers within the poll. For all of millennials’ lifetimes (and longer), voters have given the GOP the edge on national security. Ronald Reagan successfully portrayed Jimmy Carter as a wuss with the help of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, had the good fortune of being president as the Soviet Union was collapsing/was smart to get them into an arms race since they were already hemorrhaging cash—then in 1988, the Democratic candidate for president rode around in a tank looking like a doofus, literally shooting a campaign commercial for his opponent, George H. W. Bush, and that was that. The narrative was set. The GOP won.
When asked about broad generalizations like “national security, relations with closest allies and immigration,” undecided voters generally approve of this Republican administration. But on specifics, like “relations with China, relations with North Korea, and trade relations,” public sentiment begins to swing in the opposite direction. Trump’s trade war is especially damaging because not only is China expensively (for the rest of us) calling his bluff, but theirs, Canada’s and the EU’s tariffs are designed to hurt Trump voters even more.
As Democratic pollster Geoff Garin noted to Axios, voters right now are not paying attention to foreign policy in the 2020 election—likely because it’s only May 2019—and that is distorting the figures. That said, if I were a Trump advisor, stats like these would make me very nervous as to where the overall sentiment will land a year from now:
However, 46% believe Trump has made America less safe, compared to 38% who say he’s made the country safer. Meanwhile, 57% believe he has made America less respected around the world, while 67% worry he “lacks the temperament we need in a commander in chief.”
Again, on specifics, Trump loses ground in areas that Republican presidents typically win by default. The positive marks he is getting on national security from undecided voters largely fall on amorphous lines dependent entirely on Trump and the GOP’s constant projection of toughness and the GOP’s brand, but when undecided voters really drill down to it, many of the executive actions Trump has taken are viewed negatively. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that for the first time in millennials’ lifetimes, 2020 will feature a Democratic candidate more trusted on the issue of national security and foreign policy than the Republican candidate. Trump is constantly reshaping our politics, and not always to his own benefit.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.