Putin, ISIS Grab Headlines, but Not Voters’ Attention
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The Fiscal Times
September 3, 2014

The grim news that the terrorist group ISIS beheaded another American journalist on Tuesday was immediately picked up by web sites and television news broadcasts, and by Wednesday morning will be splashed across most newspapers in the country. It will likely appear beside stories focused on Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s claim that his armies, currently fighting in eastern Ukraine, could take Kiev in the space of two weeks if he wanted to do so. 

But while the developments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe are leading the news these days, one place where they are receiving scant attention is on the campaign trail. With just weeks to go before a midterm election that could tip control of Congress to the Republican Party, neither Democrats nor Republicans are actively campaigning on foreign policy issues, according to experts. 

Related: The Three Hottest Issues Dominating the Midterm Elections 

“I’m not hearing it,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “It’s not in the ads, or at least not yet.” 

She said the only time voters are likely to hear about Iraq or the war in Afghanistan is when a candidate’s personal military service there as seen as a potential boost to his or her electoral chances.

For instance, she said, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a former Army officer who led combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan “obviously talks about that as part of his bio.” But in general, she said, “It’s quite amazing how absent from the race those issues are.” 

It would be going too far to claim that crises in the Middle East and Ukraine are having no impact on voters at all, said Nicole McCleskey, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies. But rather than focusing on specific issues, she said, some voters are receptive to a narrative about America being in decline under Democrats. 

Related: Nervous Republicans Play it Safe Before Midterms 

“They don’t focus on Ukraine specifically or on Putin or ISIS,” she said. “They see it as a weakening of America abroad and a lack of respect for the United States along with the instability and insecurity that creates.” 

To the extent that is playing out on the campaign trail, she said, it is generally limited to Republicans tapping into a general sense that “Democrats aren’t leading very strongly.” 

Asked why foreign policy, one of the key issues in recent presidential elections, isn’t resonating with voters the way it once did, the Cook Political Report’s Duffy said, “Look at some of the polling data. Americans are becoming a little isolationist at the moment. It almost doesn’t feel like it’s our place to intervene everywhere. I don’t think they see ISIS as the direct threat that it is. Unfortunately, something has to happen before they figure that out.” 

Another issue conspicuously absent from the campaign trail this year is the one that President Obama last year declared “the defining challenge of our time” and vowed to dedicate the remainder of his term to fighting: income inequality. 

Related: Even the Pope Wants to Stop ISIS. Shouldn’t Obama? 

“There has not been that much on income inequality,” said Duffy 

McCleskey, of Public Opinion Strategies, agreed. 

“You see some of it where a lot of campaigns will talk about minimum wage, the Koch brothers, but I don’t see that having much impact at all,” she said. You aren’t telling voters anything that they don’t already feel, so it’s not getting them a whole lot further in terms of voter attention or traction.” 

In fact, President Obama is dictating much of what’s happening on the campaign trail right now – but not in the way he probably hoped. With his approval ratings well below 50 percent, every domestic policy position he has staked out over the last five and a half years is fair game for Republican attack ads, especially if an incumbent has been supportive of the president. 

According to Duffy, GOP talking points often come down to how often Democratic incumbents have voted with the president. “His picture is featured prominently in a lot of [Republican] ads,” she said. “Yeah. He is the issue.”

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A longtime reporter on the intersection of the federal government and the private sector, Rob Garver is National Correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He has written for ProPublica, The New York Times and other publications.