Cautionary Tales from the Campaign Trail

WASHINGTON—Despite the level of international interest generated by American politics, there is a surprisingly meager tradition of commentary on the subject by outside observers actually read by Americans, flowing from Alexis de Tocqueville to Alistair Cooke. And yet every U.S. presidential election is also a global election. Four years ago, speculation as to whether Barack Obama, John McCain, or Hillary Clinton was preferable as an American leader went far beyond official circles in such capitals as Baghdad, Berlin, Brasilia, and Beijing, to living rooms, schools, and cafés from Mazar-e-Sharif to Marseilles and Montreal to Mumbai.

This year’s election has yet to generate a similar level of attention, because it is far less open or potentially groundbreaking. Still, misconceptions about the electoral process and U.S. political dynamics abound. As Mitt Romney appears set to seal his position as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate after his main rival Rick Santorum suspended his campaign yesterday, it may be worthwhile taking stock of some of the common errors made in popular commentary about U.S. presidential elections.

One of the most striking aspects about the 2012 election cycle so far has been the exaggerated influence attributed to certain groups and individuals. The mid-term elections in the U.S. Congress two years ago witnessed the arrival of the Tea Party, a movement that channeled popular dissatisfaction with tax increases, entitlement reform, and foreign wars to oust or threaten many long-term incumbents. Yet this year, the leading Republican candidates boasted competitively of their high income taxes. Admittedly, the remarkable success of Congressman Ron Paul — once considered a fringe member of his party — can at least partly be ascribed to his role in the Tea Party movement. But the presumed Republican presidential candidate has succeeded without Tea Party support this year.

Similarly, the former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — widely expected to be, if not a candidate herself, then at least a key power broker — has exerted little influence on the outcome of her party’s primaries. Various influential right-wing media commentators have also found themselves marginalized as Republican Party stalwarts have opted to rally behind Romney, a technocratic former governor of Democratic-leaning Massachusetts.

Premature attempts at divining the outcome of November’s election are another common source of errors. Many commentators — both in the United States and abroad — were convinced in mid-2011 that Obama’s chances of re-election were slim. At the time, unemployment figures and oil prices were both high and the president’s popularity rating was at an all-time low. But with the economy showing signs of recovery, and Obama faring well in head-to-head polls against Romney, the narrative has rapidly reversed.

And yet it is uncertain how long such sentiments will last. It is hard not to recall the example of 2008. Many forget now that John McCain had looked primed to win the election in August of that year. But by October — after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the U.S. economic downturn — Obama’s victory seemed all but certain. Republican and Democratic national conventions, which take place in the summer before a presidential election, have also historically shaped popular opinion in meaningful ways. And so the outcome of this year’s election will likely only be decided after August.

A final misconception about U.S. presidential elections by external observers involves exaggerating the role of international affairs in determining the final results. This is entirely understandable. It is natural to impose one’s own prisms and be concerned about how the election affects one’s own interests and fortunes. But the foreign policy dynamics of this election promise to be even less pronounced than in past editions. While Republicans have usually emphasized their strong national security credentials, their efforts this year will in part be blunted by Obama’s handling of several simultaneous wars and his ordering the killing of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. Romney, given his own lack of military experience and limited national security credentials, has also sought to portray himself more as America’s CEO than its Commander-in-Chief.

Of course, the Obama administration’s Iran policy and its support for cuts to the defense budget will come under heavy criticism from the Romney campaign, but such arguments are likely to be superseded by other pressing concerns. American voters will, in essence, be confronted with a choice as to which Harvard alumnus can better manage the U.S. government and economy at a time of spiraling debt, competing priorities, and diverse challenges. All politics are local, as the saying goes — but this election could well be more local than most.

Dhruva Jaishankar is a Program Officer with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.