With Iraq and Ukraine, foreign policy will be big in midterm elections, right?

Yes, overseas news is top of mind now. But don't expect that to spill over into Election Day 2014 or 2016. Foreign policy is way down on voters' priority lists.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama speaks about the situations in Iraq and in Ferguson, Mo., Thursday in Edgartown, Mass.

Iraq, Gaza, and Ukraine are in turmoil. Hillary Rodham Clinton has stirred controversy by saying that President Obama’s foreign policy motto – “Don’t do stupid stuff” – is “not an organizing principle.” And a select congressional committee is investigating the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

So foreign policy and national security will dominate the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race, right?

No, probably not.

During the 2012 campaign, voters barely noticed Benghazi – or any other international concern. In the election exit poll, only 5 percent of respondents said that foreign policy was the most important issue.

When Gallup recently asked Americans to name the top three problems facing the country, foreign policy issues accounted for only 7 percent of the mentions. Another 3 percent involved war or the threat of war. All the other mentions involved economic or domestic issues.

Americans don’t know much about foreign policy and international affairs. Multiple polls show that they vastly overestimate the share of the US budget going to foreign aid. A few months ago, a survey found that most respondents could not come within 1,000 miles of locating Ukraine on a map.

Even when people do think about foreign problems, their attitude tends to be “stay away.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent agree that the US should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” That’s the highest level of such sentiment in half a century. Likewise, 80 percent agree that “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.”

If an issue does not directly involve American interests, then it will have little electoral impact. Former President Clinton has acknowledged that his failure to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide was  one of his greatest regrets. But the slaughter caused scarcely a ripple on the domestic political scene.

Of course, voters do take notice when American lives are at stake, or when international affairs affect the economy. In that sense, Iran was a double disaster for President Carter. The 1979 revolution led to an oil shock that in turn triggered a recession. And then the hostage crisis dogged his administration to the very end. Both of these problems contributed greatly to his 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan.

So if current world events disrupt financial markets or result in American boots on the ground, then they might leave their mark on voting decisions. But unless and until such things happen, foreign policy will not be a dominant issue.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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