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Why Mitt Romney's foreign policy platform might cost him the 2012 election

When we last left off, your humble blogger was speculating on the ways in which foreign policy had cost Mitt Romney during the campaign.  In this post I want to expand on that theme -- with an assist from the just-released-this-very-minute-from-embargo 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy

To set the table: 

1)  Despite the expectations of some Republicans, the traditional economic variables that affect a presidential campaign aren't tilting the needle towards Mitt Romney.  As the New York Times' Jeff Sommer reports:

For a year in which a truly dismal economy sealed the electoral fate of an incumbent president, [Ray Fair] says, look at 1980, when President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. In the nine months leading up to that election, per capita gross domestic product actually declined at an average annual rate of 3.7 percent, while inflation increased at an annual rate of 7.9 percent.

Professor Fair estimates that the comparable numbers for President Obama are G.D.P. growth of 1.62 percent and inflation of 1.51 percent. The low inflation rate is a plus for the president, while the mediocre G.D.P. growth rate is a problem — though not a fatal one.

“You can quite properly call this economy ‘weak,’ ” he said, “but it’s nothing like what Carter faced.” Mr. Reagan’s overwhelming victory “fit the economic picture perfectly,” he said. “This is a different situation.”

He added: “If the economy were significantly weaker or significantly stronger — if we were in a recession or if economic growth were really dramatically better — we’d have a much clearer picture of who would win the election. But the economy remains in a range of mediocre growth. It puts us in the margin-of-error range.”....

Professor Fair will compute a fresh prediction based on data available in late October, but at this stage the political probabilities aren’t likely to shift very much, he says. “It looks as though this will be a horse race, a very close one,” he says.

If it's a horse race, then one of the horses has pulled into an ever-so-slight lead. Both FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen note that the conventions have given a small but crucial advantage to the incumbent.  VandeHei and Allen talked to both campaigns, and here is the best hope for the Romney camp:   

[W]hen you dig into the small slice of undecided voters (probably only 6 percent to 8 percent of the electorate, according to the campaigns), the demographics are not favorable to Obama: mostly white, many with some college education, economically stressed, largely middle-aged. 

Obama officials have maintained for several weeks that there are too few undecided voters for Romney to get the bounce he needs from the debates. “Romney is not going to win undecided voters 4-to-1,” a senior administration official told reporters on Air Force One on Friday. “If you are losing in Ohio by 4 or 5 points and trailing in Colorado by 2 points, if you are trailing in Nevada by 2 or 3 points, you are not going to win in those states." 

So, for Romney to win, he's going to have to run the table with the tiny sliver of undecided independents. 

And here is where foreign policy becomes a real problem for Mitt Romney -- because if the Chicago Council results are accurate, independents basically want the exact opposite of what Mitt Romney is selling them. 

Let's stipulate that a President Romney might not actually do what he's promising during the campaign -- certainly the smart money doesn't believe him.  Still, based on his rhetoric to date, let's also stipulate that Romney really wants America to lead the world.  He wants to boost defense spending rather than cut it.  He certainly wants to give the appearance that he would pursue a more hawkish policy towards Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea, China and illegal immigrants than Barack Obama.    

That's great -- except it turns out most of America -- and independents in particular -- want pretty much the opposite of that.  Indeed, as Marshall Bouton says in the Foreword to the report: 

Over time, Independents have become more inclined than either Republicans or Democrats to limit U.S. engagement in world affairs. Because Independents are an increasing share of the electorate, this development in American public opinion warrants attention. 

If you read the whole report, what's striking is how much the majority view on foreign policy jibes with what the Obama administration has been doing in the world: military retrenchment from the Greater Middle East, a reliance on diplomacy and sanctions to deal with rogue states, a refocusing on East Asia, and prudent cuts in defense spending. 

As for Romney, here are some excerpts from the report that suggest where the entire country -- and independents in particular -- are drifting away from his foreign policy rhetoric: 

This survey demonstrates a  strong desire to move on from a decade of war, to scale back spending, and avoid major new military entanglements. The lesson many Americans took away from the Iraq war—that nations should be more cautious about using military force to deal with rogue nations—appears to be taking hold more broadly (p. 13)....

Along with the lessons learned from a decade of war and a reduced sense of threat, Americans are also keenly aware of constraints on U.S. economic resources. When asked whether the defense budget should be cut along with other programs in the effort to address the federal budget deficit, 68 percent of Americans say the defense budget should be cut. This is up 10 points from 58 percent in 2010 (p. 15)....

The most preferred approach to ending [the Iranian nuclear] threat, endorsed by 80 percent, is the one that the UN Security Council is pursuing: imposing tighter economic sanctions on Iran. Essentially the same number (79%) approve of continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium. Consistent with this strong support for diplomatic approaches, in a separate question, 67 percent of Americans say the United States should be willing to meet and talk with Iranian leaders (p. 29)....

Republicans see greater threats in nearly all areas tested in the 2012 survey. They are more likely than Democrats and Independents to view U.S. debt to China, immigration, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran’s nuclear program as critical threats (p. 42).

It would appear that Americans -- particularly independents -- have become even more realpolitik than they were when I wrote this five years ago.  Or, to put it more pungently, poll results like these are the kind of thing that will make John Bolton really angry and Jennifer Rubin really scared and William Kristol and the rest of the Weekly Standard gang all hot and bothered -- and not in the good way. 

Now, I strongly suspect that this won't matter to most undecideds.  Foreign policy really isn't a high priority for most voters.  That said, there are three ways in which this could matter. 

First, undecideds likely hold that position because they haven't paid a lot of attention to the campaign yet.  As they start to, it's going to be easier for them to process the rhetorical differences on Iran than on health care.  So if Romney is going to attract the bulk of these undecideds, he's going to do it despite his foreign policy pronouncements -- not because of them.   In an election where a 2% advantage seems insurmountable in a lot of states, even tiny disadvantages matter. 

Second, the Obama campaign seems to be quite eager to micro-target key audiences on foreign policy/national security, as VandeHei and Allen note in their story:

Obama’s plan is to slice and dice his way through myriad campaigns, all distinct, all designed to turn on — or off — very specific subsets of voters in specific states or even counties. Republicans concede Obama is better organized in the areas getting hit with the micro-campaigns....

The Obama plan also focuses on students with an education message; veterans in states that include Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada; housing in Nevada and Florida, where the market tanked; and military families in Virginia, Florida and Colorado (emphasis added). 

I am willing to bet that these groups are not going to be keen to hear anything about a more bellicose foreign policy, and Romney's waning competency on the issue won't help. 

Third -- and finally -- look at it this way:  if the economy doesn't produce the national poll movements that the Romney campaign wants, they'll have to shift to secondary issues.  For the last forty years, the GOP has been able to go to foreign policy and national security.  If Romney does that this time, however, he'll alienate the very independents he needs to win. 

Could Romney/Ryan simply retool their foreign policy message for the general election to allay the concerns of independents and undecideds?  No, I don't think they can.  For one thing, it's simply too late to rebrand.  For another, when cornered on these questions they seem to like doubling down on past statements. Finally, I get the sense that one reason Romney sounds so hawkish is because the campaign thinks it's a cheap way to appeal to the GOP base.  Deviating from that script to woo the undecideds will only fuel suspicion of Romney's conservative bona fides. 

So maybe, just maybe, foreign policy will matter a little bit during this election.  And not in a way that helps Mitt Romney. 

Am I missing anything? 

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