The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Foreign policy hasn’t really affected past elections. Why this time might be different.

Let's think through how the Paris terrorist attacks might affect the 2016 race.

Presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders all spoke about strategies to confront terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks. (Video: The Washington Post)
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A few days ago Brendan Nyhan wrote a smart post for the Upshot about whether the Paris attacks would affect the 2016 presidential race in the United States. His answer was “pretty much no”:

How long-lasting an effect will the Paris attacks have on the United States presidential race? Absent further attacks, the suggestion that Paris will prove to be a “game changer” is unlikely to be correct. Though unexpected events like Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” taped remarks or the Ebola outbreak often seem tremendously important at the time, their effects on the polls and the content of debate are often less durable than we expect. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden had little discernible effect on President Obama’s approval ratings. One initial piece of evidence in favor of this hypothesis: Prices in betting markets tracked by David Rothschild of Microsoft Research over the weekend showed virtually no change in the expected winners of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations or the general election.

I’d wager that this captures the sentiment of most political scientists who study elections; it was certainly the sentiment that Lynn Vavreck expressed at a conference I organized last month on foreign policy ideas and presidential campaigns.

Because I’m going to be on a UCLA panel on Thursday discussing these topics, I suppose I should figure out whether I agree with this assessment. And my answer is that it’s complicated. In many ways, I don’t disagree with this consensus — but that’s because most of the evidence focuses on how candidates fare in the general election.

We’re still at the primary stage, however, and on the GOP side of the ledger the party has most definitely not decided on which horse to back. Furthermore, in both this election cycle and the previous one, a lot more outsiders have entered the race. With more outsiders, the filtering mechanisms through which candidates get pushed aside become more visible. And I do wonder if foreign policy acumen is one of those criteria. Indeed, this isn’t just a problem for outsiders — one could argue that it was a huge problem for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the invisible primary phase.

Which brings me to Ben Carson.

The word “amazeballs” has been cheapened in our modern discourse, but I think that word crystallizes the past day’s worth of Carson stories. After a week in which the retired neurosurgeon sounded incoherent, unsure or just flat-out wrong about foreign policy, Trip Gabriel filed one of the most amazeball stories of this cycle:

Faced with increasing scrutiny about whether Mr. Carson — who leads in some Republican presidential polls — was capable of leading American foreign policy, two of his top advisers said in interviews with The New York Times that he had struggled to master the intricacies of the Middle East and national security and that intense tutoring was having little effect.
“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security, said in an interview. He also said Mr. Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so “we can make him smart.” . . .
Mr. Clarridge, who contacted Mr. Carson nearly two years ago to offer his services without pay, has helped the candidate prepare for debates. But the briefings do not always seem to sink in, Mr. Clarridge acknowledged. After Mr. Carson struggled on “Fox News Sunday” to say whom he would call first to form a coalition against the Islamic State, Mr. Clarridge called Mr. Williams, the candidate’s top adviser, in frustration. “We need to have a conference call once a week where his guys roll out the subjects they think will be out there, and we can make him smart,” Mr. Clarridge said he told Mr. Williams.
Mr. Williams, one of Mr. Carson’s closest friends, who does not have an official role in the campaign, also lamented the Fox News interview. “He’s been briefed on it so many times,” he said. “I guess he just froze.”

As Jonathan Chait concludes, “his advisers now appear genuinely terrified that he might be elected president and are doing everything in their power to stop it.”

Carson’s campaign responded quickly, and if you think Gabriel’s story was good, read their response to Business Insider:

“Mr. Clarridge has incomplete knowledge of the daily, not weekly briefings, that Dr. Carson receives on important national security matters from former military and State Department officials,” Doug Watts, a Carson campaign spokesman, told Business Insider in an email.
“He is coming to the end of a long career of serving our country. Mr. Clarridge’s input to Dr. Carson is appreciated but he is clearly not one of Dr. Carson’s top advisors. For the New York Times to take advantage of an elderly gentleman and use him as their foil in this story is an affront to good journalistic practices.”

So the Carson campaign’s response appears to be, “pay no attention to this old, senile man — who, by the by, has been briefing our candidate.” I’m not sure that’s a winning political response.

The follow-up stories don’t help Carson either. As Armstrong Williams told my colleague Erik Wemple, “I don’t take issue with anything in that article.” Furthermore, as NBC’s Alexandra Jaffe tweeted based on an interview with former Carson campaign manager Terry Giles:

To be fair, the foreign policy guy actually on Carson’s payroll — Liberty University professor Robert Dees — told the NYT’s Gabriel that “Dr. Carson is an amazing intellect,” and that “he has the right stuff to be commander in chief.” To be more than fair, however, Foreign Policy’s James Manford reported earlier this month that Dees is “a retired Army officer who has indulged in anti-Muslim bigotry and advocated for a national security strategy centered on Christian evangelism.” So I’m not placing too much stock in Dees’s assessment of who knows what about foreign policy.

Look, the point seems pretty obvious: Carson possesses neither the requisite information nor judgment to handle foreign policy issues. That’s also reflected in the latest (post-Paris) Reuters poll, in which Carson trails businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) in confidence about responding to terrorism. If Carson, who was doing pretty well in the favorable/unfavorable category before the past week, continues to slide in the polls, then maybe his lack of foreign policy acumen had something to do with it. But if Carson reverses his fall, that would be very strong evidence that foreign policy doesn’t affect the primary much.

As Nyhan points out, “we should also be careful about attributing future events to the attacks.” It’s entirely possible that Carson would have fizzled out for some other reason. And Trump’s mysterious levitation act in the polls on foreign policy suggests that maybe voters simply like the guy they like and imbue him/her with good properties when asked by pollsters.

But as a political scientist, I’d still like to thank Ben Carson for providing this little natural experiment. Because if his numbers don’t continue to go down, the political science consensus that foreign policy doesn’t matter much in campaigns would be more robust than ever.