‘Trump referendum’ could have major effect on US foreign policy

‘Trump referendum’ could have major effect on US foreign policy


Campaigning for the US midterms has reached fever pitch as election day closes in. Early voting returns indicate that both Democratic and Republican voting bases are unusually engaged, with multiple states seeing more than double the number of early votes cast compared to this point in the 2014 midterms.

Yet it is not just the public in the US who are following the campaign closely. Populations right across the globe are watching the midterms with significant interest, given the key policy differences between Democrats and Republicans and the overall large stakes in play, with control of Congress up for grabs. 

Part of the reason for this global appeal is that the midterms are being perceived very much as a referendum on Donald Trump’s first two years of office, and the results may therefore give an early signal as to whether the president will be re-elected in 2020. However, a deeper factor driving foreign interest is the high prominence of international issues in the campaign. 

Take the example of the so-called “migrant caravan” of several thousand people, which set off from Honduras several weeks ago, Trump has asserted Democrats are responsible for, and is now around 1,000 miles away from the Mexico-US border. Well aware that migration issues are salient with much of his Republican support, the president has relentlessly used the issue to energize his base, pledging to stop the caravan from passing into the US by deploying thousands of military personnel.

Another international issue shaping the campaign is the growing US-China trade and security spat. Last month, Trump sensationally claimed at the UN Security Council, without offering evidence in public, that Beijing had been working to interfere in the midterms with the aim of damaging Republicans because of Chinese unhappiness with the White House’s stance toward the Asian giant.

The high incidence of international issues in this year’s midterm campaign continues a pattern from the 2016 presidential election, which saw Trump’s victory. 

Andrew Hammond

This underlines that Trump won the White House in 2016 on an America First platform. Here, he is not just engaged in what could become a trade war with China, but he has also recently agreed a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, which is being rebranded as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, after rescinding US involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership with multiple Asian allies.

The high incidence of international issues in this year’s midterm campaign continues a pattern from the 2016 presidential election, which saw Trump’s victory. A Pew Research Center study that year found that 34 percent of the population believed foreign policy was the biggest challenge facing the country. By contrast, “only” 23 percent mentioned domestic, especially economic, problems.

This high salience of foreign compared to economic and wider domestic issues is unusual in the past few decades of US political history. Indeed, it more resembles the first 25 years of the Cold War, from 1948 to 1972, when international security issues dominated the concerns of US voters during campaigns. 

By contrast, since the early 1970s, economic and wider domestic matters have tended to be the electorate’s highest priority. For instance, in 2011, just before the last but one presidential election year in 2012, some 55 percent of US citizens cited economic worries as the most important issue facing the country, according to Pew. By contrast, only 6 percent mentioned foreign policy or other international issues.

Yet, although foreign and security policy has returned to the forefront of the US electorate’s mind, at least temporarily, there are significant differences between now and during the first two decades of the Cold War. The earlier period was characterized by a relative US policy consensus and widespread bipartisan cooperation on foreign and security matters. Today, however, foreign policy is a significantly more divisive topic politically between Democrats and Republicans.

To be sure, this early Cold War consensus can be overstated. Nonetheless, a significant degree of bipartisan agreement on foreign affairs, and wider political decorum, did exist until breaking apart in the late 1960s under the strain of the Vietnam War debacle, and the demise of the notion of monolithic communism in light of the Sino-Soviet split.

In recent years, no clear foreign and security policy consensus has emerged. For instance, many Republicans and Democrats differ significantly on how they view the power and standing of the US internationally; on the degree to which the country should be unilateralist; in their attitudes toward the campaign against terrorism and the methods by which they are being fought; and on what the core priorities of foreign policy should be. 

Barring a potentially seismic economic development, such as a massive Wall Street stock market crash, in the coming days, it is likely that the current relatively high salience of foreign issues will remain a key driver of the rest of the campaign. And the partisan splits on these topics will reinforce high rates of political polarization in the US electorate. 

Taken overall, foreign policy and security issues are likely to remain a key feature of the remainder of the campaign. Partisan divisions have prevented the establishment of a foreign policy consensus in recent years, and the gaps between Republicans and Democrats on these issues may have only widened during this potentially crucial midterm election campaign, which could determine the fate of Trump’s presidency.


  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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