Dan Drezner argues that foreign policy matters in two ways in this election:

  1. Barack Obama is viewed as more competent than Mitt Romney on foreign policy;
  2. Democrats and Republicans have pretty similar foreign policy views and where they differ, independents are closer to Obama’s than to Romney’s stated foreign policy positions ;

I think Dan is basically correct (and I made the second point here). What these points combine to imply is that (barren a crisis) it is not obvious how Romney can win many Obama voters or Independents by campaigning on foreign policy issues. Given the state of the economy, this would always have been an election in which foreign policy would have played second fiddle. Yet, it also is a very tight election in which small gains matter. Issues can be important even when they are relatively absent in the campaign, especially if we take into consideration the traditional emphasis Republican candidates have put on foreign affairs.

Dan’s posts are based in part on a  new Chicago Council on Foreign Relations Report, whose conclusions are worth quoting:

Contrary to the idea that political polarization among the American public is growing, the 2012 Chicago Council Survey reveals that Democrats and Republicans are actually very similar in their views on foreign policy. Though they differ in the degree to which they hold their views, there are only a few cases where their preferences diverge especially on immigration and Middle East policy). What is most striking is the increasing distance in the stances of Independents from both Republicans and Democrats alike. This growing segment has become less favorable toward an active U.S. leadership role over time: they are less supportive of “hawkish” forms of engagement than Republicans and less supportive of “dovish” approaches to foreign policy than Democrats.

I actually don’t see how the hawk-dove point follows from the data. The one consistent difference in the report is that Independents are less supportive than both Democrats and Republicans about the use of US troops abroad under any scenario proposed in the survey. In other ways, Independents are not so different from Democrats and Republicans (although more like the former than the latter with the notable exception of immigration).

I chose the issues in the graph above with an eye towards speculating what the electoral consequences of a crisis might be. Violence in Syria could rise to genocidal levels and the issue of defending Israel is also not purely hypothetical. Large majorities oppose military action in both cases right now but events may change people’s perceptions of the current situations.

It is highly speculative to predict what might happen in a new crisis that we do not yet understand. Usually, Americans rally behind their President in times of crisis. It is not sure that Obama would gain much electorally from paying too much attention to polls  but if he did, they would point towards restraint.

Another message the Chicago report conveys is that Democrats are at least as divided on foreign policy as are the Republicans, especially on the Middle East,  intervention, terrorism, trade, and other core challenges. While Obama’s perceived competency advantage may deter Republicans from going after the President too much, Democrats have plenty of reasons to stay away from many of these issues as well.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.