Trump’s Presidential Campaign: The Factor That Could Decide The US Election – Analysis


The US presidential elections in November this year will be extremely exciting and unpredictable. Although they have yet to be confirmed by the national conventions of their parties in the summer, it is likely that the nominees of the two dominant American parties will be the current president, Democrat Joe Biden, and the controversial Republican Donald Trump. In the political contest between the two veterans of American politics, a special place has foreign policy. Two nominees show diametrically opposed views in that field.

Little influence of geopolitics on American voters in history

On the other hand, for many years, even decades, political scientists and journalists regularly correctly remind that foreign policy is not the decisive issue for the American voters. Unbiased Americans who are not ardent supporters of the Republican or Democratic party (the silent majority of the American people) would vote for the nominee who would offer better solutions in the areas of economy and social policy. Foreign policy, with some exceptions, was not a deciding factor. Admittedly, at some moments in history, foreign policy has really had a significant impact on the outcome of elections.

The widespread opinion that the United States was losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union and the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 decisively accelerated the defeat of the “weak” President Jimmy Carter against the “strong” Republican Ronald Reagan. Although surveys show that the initial stages of the war in Iraq influenced 1-2% of voters in the 2004 presidential election, two years later American dissatisfaction with the prolonged war contributed to the victory of the Democratic Party in the midterm election. In 2008, the democratic candidate Barack Obama won the presidential elections for the same reason – he was in favor of ending the war and American overseas interventions.

Foreign policy is becoming a subject of interest for American voters

History shows again and again how everything changes. A combination of unique (geo)political and social circumstances indicates that foreign policy will definitely be a very important topic for American voters in 2024. The statistics already show this unequivocally. The attitude towards geopolitical topics (the refugee crisis on the US-Mexico border, the wars in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip, the attitude towards China, Russia, NATO…) could decide the winner of election.

In a December 2023 poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 38% of Americans named foreign policy as one of the top five issues the U.S. government should address in 2024—up 18% from 2022. About 4 out of 10 American adults ranked foreign policy as a top 5 topics.

American university professor and expert on international relations, Jordan Tama, pointed out two elements that need to be fulfilled in order for geopolitics to influence the American elections: 1) a prominent international crisis, 2) clear foreign policy differences between the presidential nominees. The first element will be fulfilled in any case. Political and social processes have influenced that there are currently three major international crises: the migrant crisis on the US-Mexico border, the war between Israel and Hamas, and the Russian-Ukrainian war. If Biden and Trump meet again in this year’s elections, the second element will also be fulfilled.

Character more important than political content

American foreign policy expert, Jeffrey A. Friedman, found in his book “The Commander-in-Chief Test:” that when it comes to foreign policy, Americans often vote based on the perceived character traits of candidates rather than based on the candidate’s views on certain issues. According to this theory, Americans tend to vote for the candidate who gives the impression of a strong leader who can stand up for US interests in the international arena.

Often, the perception of a strong leader is associated with an assertive foreign policy, which also explains why presidents who wage war from the Oval Office tend to win elections. In his research, Friedman asked respondents why they thought Biden would lead foreign policy better than Trump. He found that twice as many voters support Biden because of personal characteristics like strength and determination than specific elements of his foreign policy.

When looking at the big picture, favoring personal characteristics of candidates over policy content does not work in Biden’s favor since about 3/4 of Americans consider him too old to be an effective president. Although Trump is also quite old (77 years old), his aggresive rhetoric protects him from the perception of a weak leader.

The importance of social networks and digital media

Developments in technology are greatly increasing the importance of foreign policy to American voters. Currently, a very important group of voters are the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). They are the first “digital generation” that relies on social networks (Instagram, TikTok, X, Facebook) as a primary source of information.

The ability of social media to document wars in real time means young voters are constantly watching American foreign policy unfold in one form or another. That doesn’t go well with Biden. While Biden’s foreign policy can be followed every day on social networks and the current president cannot camouflage it, Trump’s foreign policy agenda has an advantage because it is based on criticism and theory that has yet to be realized.

Biden’s foreign policy in crisis

Biden’s approval rating is near an all-time low. Just under 40% of Americans approve the work he is doing and only about a third support his foreign policy. Globally, everything has gone downhill for Biden since the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

The failure of foreign policy continued with the prolonged war in Ukraine. Ukraine has not swept away Russian forces despite billions of dollars in American aid. The much-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive failed ingloriously. This was followed by a bloody war in the Gaza Strip in which Israel, supported by Biden, killed more than 30,000 Palestinian civilians, including 10,000 children. As a result of that war, Houthi rebels launched attacks on ships in the Red Sea. Attacks by Iran and its allies on American forces in Iraq and Syria followed. All of this made Biden look like a weak president.

America first – Trump’s big advantage

Biden and Trump differ greatly in terms of vision of the USA in the world. In his October speech, Biden asserted that: “American leadership is what holds the world together.” Biden prioritizes geopolitics and wants to be remembered as a president who fought for democracy across the planet, in accordance with his globalist agenda. In other words, Biden believes that the US should remain the world’s policeman and tutor.

On the other hand, Trump advocates a nationalist and isolationist foreign policy agenda “America First” – the US should look primarily at its own interests and not interfere in the affairs of other countries. Trump does not believe that the US should export democracy and human rights. American voters, although they are patriots, have become reserved towards the idea that America must lead the world and be the world’s policeman. A Gallup survey in early 2023 found that 45% of Americans want their country to play an important role in the world, but only 20% want the US to play a leading role. Voters agree with Trump’s policy.

An integral part of America’s position in the world is its relationship with NATO. While Biden is an ardent supporter of the alliance and its Article 5, according to which an attack on one member state is an attack on all members, Trump disagrees. In February, at a pre-election rally, he stated that he will not protect NATO member states that do not fulfill the alliance’s obligation to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Moreover, it is possible that he would welcome a Russian attack on such European allies as Turkey, which spends 1.31% of GDP on defense, or Bulgaria (1.84%). NATO is a matter of American pride. It is the most visible instrument of American power in the world. So it’s no surprise that 60% of Americans have a positive opinion of the alliance.

With that in mind, Trump would be in deep trouble if he tried to withdraw the US from alliance. He does not even publicly advocate it, but asks that other member states increase their defense spending, which American capitalist-oriented citizens understand very well. In January, Trump stated that “NATO has taken advantage of our country” and conditioned adherence to NATO on the basis of “if they treat us right.” To the ordinary Americans, Trump’s conditional policy of helping foreign countries is more suitable than Biden’s willingness to wage wars for democracy.

The crucial issue of illegal immigration

The attitude towards illegal immigration in the US is actually the most important foreign policy issue and one that clearly highlights the differences between the two candidates. More than 75% of Americans perceive the current situation on the border with Mexico as a crisis or a major problem. Under pressure from Republicans who accuse him of failing to control the border, Biden in January called on Congress to provide more funding for border security and said he would “close the border” if given new powers to turn back migrants.

Despite Biden’s recent moves to more forcefully secure the border, there remains a visible and striking difference between the “soft” policies of Biden and the aggressive approach of Trump. Trump has vowed to treat the migrant issue as a matter of national security, pledging to deploy troops to the border and potentially even engage in military action against drug cartels in Mexico or elsewhere. A lot of voters like that stance. 

Biden’s hypocrisy towards the Palestinians and Trump’s silence

The Israel-Hamas war is an issue where the two candidates also differ. Biden wants to balance support for Israel and Palestinian rights, while Trump advocates a strong pro-Israel policy. However, since a large part of the public condemns Biden’s pro-Israeli policies, Trump chose to keep quiet and not provoke young people, liberals and progressives who are particularly sympathetic to the Palestinians.

On February 27 something incredible happened in the Democratic primaries in the key swing state of Michigan. 101,449 voters (13.2%) voted “non-affiliated”. This group of Americans actually protested against President Joe Biden and his administration for supporting Israel’s war campaign in the Gaza Strip because they want a truce in the Holy Land. This is logical because of the large number of Americans of Arab and Muslim heritage in that state as well as young progressive voters who are sympathetic to the Palestinian issue.

Voters in Michigan were the first to show open frustration with the Biden administration, which routinely vetoes all UN Security Council resolutions condemning the State of Israel. Democratic supporters don’t understand why Biden supports human rights in theory, and doesn’t want to press Benjamin Netanyahu for an unconditional ceasefire in order to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. About 60% of Americans do not support Biden’s policy towards Palestine. Since Trump is not pro-Palestinian, silence can bring him the most benefits.

Tired of the Ukrainian war – Trump’s chance

The war in Ukraine is the foreign policy issue on which the differences between Biden and Trump are most visible. Although the issue is not currently in the focus of the American public’s attention, that doesn’t mean it won’t be. Unlike the immigration and Israeli-Palestinian issues, Ukraine does not arouse strong feelings among the majority of the American people for the simple reason that most Americans have no personal ties to Ukraine.

While Biden is profusely supportive of Ukraine, Trump has repeatedly said he would resolve the war within 24 hours even before taking the oath of office. He promised to stop the “endless flow of American treasure to Ukraine” and ask the Europeans to reimburse the US for the cost of restocking their military supplies. This is in line with the view of the majority of Americans (70%) who believe that it is time to find a diplomatic solution in Ukraine. About 60% of them do not support Biden’s Ukrainian policy. Trump went one step further and said that he would recognize the annexation of Crimea and some parts of eastern Ukraine. This is unlikely, but it shows a desire to remove the issue of Ukraine from the agenda.

Relations with China

On important foreign policy issues, such as China and foreign trade, the differences between Biden and Trump do not appear to be large enough to have a major impact on the election. Both advocate tariffs and restrictions in trade with China – the continuation of the trade war.

Trump, however, takes a tougher stance on China due to the departure of jobs from industrial parts of America to China, India, Vietnam and Mexico. He threatened to impose flat tariffs of 60% on all Chinese imports. Such a procedure could resonate with voters. A recent study found that people living in the Midwest, around the Great Lakes and in the South, areas hit by the outflow of US jobs, are more likely to vote for his re-election. On world trade, Trump has proposed a tariff of 20 % on all imports of goods to the USA, complaining that the average tariff in the EU is 50% higher than in the USA.

The “Trump effect” 

Trump’s election campaign is not only important in theory. It has already begun to influence domestic and foreign political events, even though Trump has not yet become the official presidential candidate of the Republican Party. Trump recently animated his supporters in the party to oppose the law to provide aid to Ukraine and to engage in the passage of a bill to tighten controls on the Mexican border in the US Senate. Democrats were forced to draft a new law to help Ukraine. The Senate finally approved a bill giving Ukraine $95 billion. This sufficiently indicates the influence of the former and potential president. Some countries are already preparing for the arrival of a new leader.

In early March, Trump hosted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is friend with Vladimir Putin, at his Mar-a-Lago residence. The Russian president may be encouraged by the possible return of Trump to the White House and may deliberately delay ending the war with Ukraine until Trump is in the White House. Netanyahu could do something similar. There are indications that NATO has given up on appointing a woman secretary general because of Trump’s lack of respect for women politicians. The date of the federal election in Canada was influenced by Trump’s appearance. The election was timed for no later than October 20, before the Trump-Biden showdown, to motivate liberal voters to vote for liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Geopolitics to victory

Although the US presidential election is seven months away, the chaos on the Mexican border, the challenges of wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, an assertive China and international relations as a whole could decide the election. After two decades of American promotion of the export of democracy and involvement in the wars in the Middle East and North Africa (both policies largely failed) and after four turbulent years marked by the pandemic, global recession and additional wars, Trump’s isolationist foreign policy agenda could ensure victory in the elections.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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