As a general rule, foreign policy issues do not significantly impact U.S. presidential elections. And if public opinion polls are any indication, this year is no exception, with surveys consistently showing little interest among American voters for foreign policy.
Nonetheless, there are several reasons why yesterday’s foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney could matter more, perhaps a lot more, than is traditionally the case. In what is a very close race, the previous two debates appeared to have had an impact on voters’ intentions. Indeed, the first debate proved decisive in allowing Romney to overcome what had been until then a modest but seemingly durable Obama lead. In addition, last night’s debate, the final one, occurred shortly before the election, so any impressions the two candidates made will remain fresh in voters’ minds when they go to the polls on Nov. 6.
Surprisingly, Romney adopted the risky strategy of generally agreeing with many of the general goals and strategies of the Obama administration. Perhaps he wanted to appeal to the longstanding bipartisan tradition in U.S. foreign policy to confirm that he would be a responsible steward of U.S. national interests. Alternatively, having already highlighted his differences with the president on domestic and economic policy, on which most Americans tend to vote, Romney may have entered last night’s debate seeking only a draw on foreign policy issues.