Voters Get Hawkish

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As crisis after crisis emerges around the world, polls here at home show that national security issues are on the minds of voters heading to the ballot box next month. Foreign policy has skyrocketed to the top of the list of issues for voters in recent polls. And with President Barack Obama's approval ratings on foreign policy plummeting, this spells good news for Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections. What it all means for 2016, however, remains to be seen.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out earlier this month shows the fight against the Islamic State group ranking third on voters’ priority lists, behind only economic growth and partisan gridlock. A recent poll from Gallup showed "the situation with Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria" ranking first – ahead of even jobs and the economy – as an “extremely important” issue.

It has been over a decade since national security issues were polling so high among voters. In the aftermath of 9/11, foreign policy was the overwhelming issue in the 2002 midterm elections. While there hasn’t been one catastrophic event that brought these issues front and center as 9/11 did, perhaps all of the catastrophes around the world are adding up.

Global events in 2014 have given voters no shortage of cause for concern. In the spring, Russia invaded and annexed part of Ukraine. Over the summer, the Islamic State group captured significant territory in Iraq and Syria as Hamas launched another war against Israel. This fall, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong in response to China’s crackdown. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have been ongoing all year, as negotiators postponed a summer deadline to late this fall. And perhaps most concerning to the average American is the Ebola outbreak – which set the Wall Street Journal/NBC record for awareness of a major news event, as 98 percent of voters have heard of the virus.

It’s also worth noting how rapidly attitudes have changed on this front. Just a year ago, polling on foreign policy revealed not only prioritization of economic issues but also a trend among voters to support a foreign policy of retrenchment. But recent polls indicate growing numbers of Americans support a more proactive foreign policy with regard to the Islamic State group, especially when it comes to airstrikes but even on the issue of ground troops.

Americans aren’t just prioritizing national security issues in response to pollster’s questions. I’ve been out on the campaign trail this fall and voters frequently ask candidates about foreign policy. In the 10 election cycles I’ve volunteered on campaigns, I have never seen an electorate so concerned with foreign policy. Voters are asking candidates for Congress where they stand on a range of threats facing the United States, from the Islamic State group to Ebola. And as candidates begin to face each other in televised debates, stark differences are emerging between Republicans, who have traditionally been viewed as the party better able to protect the country, and Democrats, who yet again struggle to defend the president in a time where his policies are viewed as failing.

It seems clear that the focus on foreign policy in the midterm elections will be good for Republicans in November. The same Gallup poll showed that voters trust Republicans in Congress to do a better job than Democrats in Congress handling the problems posed by the Islamic militants by a 19-point margin. This comes against the backdrop of the president’s foreign policy approval ratings falling to just 31 percent. With numbers like that, Republicans would be smart to focus on national security issues as much as possible in the next 10 days.

All of this may spell trouble for Democrats in 2016 as well, especially if the party nominates the president’s former secretary of state as their candidate. Hillary Clinton’s initial steps away from Obama may be good policy, but the politics of distancing herself from an administration in which she served at such a senior level will likely prove quite difficult.

Obama’s mishandling of foreign policy crises from the Middle East to Africa to Russia to Asia resonates with the broader theme Republicans are campaigning on in 2014 and looking ahead to 2016: a lack of leadership. If the GOP takes over the Senate this fall and the White House in two years, the real test will be what kind of leadership Republicans offer once they’re off the campaign trail and into office.

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