Election Forecast: World Events Shake Isolationist Trends

October 31, 2014 By Liz Schrayer

As the midterm elections come down to the final hours, I’m struck by how much the issue of global engagement has changed over the past 18 months.  When this election cycle began, foreign policy issues were an afterthought and a rise in isolationism had crept back into the political culture.  Some candidates were even calling for America to pull back our engagement overseas.  Times certainly have changed.

Global crises have shaken us all, with daily headlines reminding us of the dangers of withdrawal from the world. Not surprisingly, there’s been a significant political impact.

A Dramatic Shift in Public Opinion

Last year at this time, I was worried when I read the latest Pew Research poll that showed an historic level of opposition to America’s international engagement.  Yes, Americans were weary after more than a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but for the first time in over 50 years, a majority of Americans said that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally.”

Now, with less than a week until the midterm elections, the polls have shifted dramatically.

A survey by the Chicago Council released last month showed that 83% of Americans say that they want “strong U.S. leadership” in the world.  In ranking what issues are most important this election, a Gallup poll from this month found that 78% of Americans see the situation with ISIS as extremely or very important to their vote, ahead of the deficit and taxes.

What’s more, the refugee crisis that has displaced 10 million people in Syria; Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea; and the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa; provides stark reminders that we live in world where a fruit vendor in Tunisia, a journalist in Raqqa, Syria, or a doctor in Liberia flying to Texas can have a dramatic effect on all of us.

Candidates have taken notice, and while domestic issues are still a major focus of the campaigns, they know that ignoring foreign policy is not a viable option.  Debates in these final weeks have been filled with jabs about which candidate will best protect America’s interests in the world.

My Crystal Ball – What to Expect

While the pundits are consumed with which party will control the Senate, the USGLC has focused on getting to know the expected 55+ new lawmakers who will be coming to Washington.

We’ve had our work cut out for us.

Eighteen months ago we launched our Smart Vote 2014 campaign, and with our national network of business, military, and community leaders, we’ve met with nearly 100 congressional candidates.  In these in-state meetings we have discussed why investing in global health systems is vital in the battle with Ebola, why diplomacy and economic development programs are key for Ukraine, and why these non-military tools can help protect our national security.  Overall, candidates are eager to meet and learn, and they recognize that America must be actively engaged in the world.

While I’m not going to predict the outcome of Tuesday’s elections (though I filled out our office pool), I am optimistic that the freshmen class of the 114th Congress will be pro-global engagement and recognize the importance of development and diplomacy to our national interests.  This is a big change from past election cycles and different from what we might have predicted just 18 months ago.

Pundits are predicting one of the lowest turnouts in modern history, perhaps only one-third of eligible voters.  Needless to say, that will be a sad statement of our nation and a reminder of the importance of our work. So don’t forget to vote!

See you after Election Day with our post-election analysis and our preview of the new, and hopefully internationally-inclined, Congress.