To be sure, the economy remains the top concern for most voters, in North Carolina and in the rest of the country. Health care and education will clearly be important and could become more so during the last weeks of the campaign as premium increases on the Affordable Care Act exchanges become public and groups supporting Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan ramp up their attacks on Republican challenger Thom Tillis’ education record as speaker of the N.C. House.
But in the wake of violent chaos in the Middle East, the beheadings of American journalists in Iraq, another Russian invasion of Ukraine, another immigration crisis on the U.S. southern border and renewed tensions with China, voter interest in national security is clearly rising. A mid-August poll by the Pew Research Center showed that two-thirds of Americans believe the world is becoming more dangerous and 54% say President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is “not tough enough.” Another mid-August poll, this one of likely North Carolina voters by Boston-based Suffolk University and USA Today, asked respondents to pick the issue most likely to sway their votes for U.S. House and Senate this year. While 22% said jobs or the economy and 18% said health care, a fifth of the state’s electorate said either immigration (11%) or national security (9%). Another recent poll of North Carolinians, taken by a private firm for the state Republican Party, found that foreign policy and security issues ranked third on the list of voter concerns, behind the economy and education.
The phenomenon demonstrates how unpredictable an election cycle can be. While candidates and political organizations have no choice but to plan their campaigns with the best-available information, reality tends to intrude. Natural disasters strike. Wars break out. Thugs do thuggish things. Politicians say dumb things. The subject matter and tenor of a campaign can take a sudden turn. If there is, indeed, a resurgence of “security voters” in 2014, North Carolina would certainly be a likely setting. Even more than the average state, we are directly affected by overseas events. Many of the country’s rapid-response military forces are based at Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg and other Tar Heel installations. Over the past decade, few states have experienced as rapid a growth rate in both legal and illegal immigration as North Carolina has.
And when it comes to foreign trade, which is either the subject of international disputes (in the case of China) or affected by international disputes (in the case of wars in the Middle East), North Carolina’s economic health is particularly vulnerable to unforeseen shocks. More than a fifth of the state’s gross domestic product derives from manufacturing, including the production of many nondurable goods exported to Canada, Mexico, Europe and the Pacific Rim. Total merchandise exports by North Carolina companies exceeded $29 billion in 2013. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, some 45% of that flows to countries with which the U.S. has a free-trade agreement. Our exports to those countries have grown by 49% over the past decade.
A more peaceful and prosperous world, in other words, is a world in which more North Carolina-based troops stay safe, fewer immigrants fleeing oppression at home feel the need to break the law to get into our state and more of the state’s workers make higher incomes producing goods and services for export. To foster peace and prosperity in other lands is, of course, far easier said than done. While American power still ensures freedom of the seas and largely sustains the international trading system, it would be inadequate to the task of remaking troubled states into bastions of order, democracy and market economics even if public opinion supported the attempt, which it does not.
On the other hand, voters seem to support robust American engagement — including a military presence — in regions such as Europe and East Asia where such involvement has proven to be in the interest of both the people there and Americans back home. Voters also seem to favor swift, devastating retaliation against rogues such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria who have taken the lives of Americans or threaten to do so. That’s one reason why public approval of Obama’s foreign-policy decisions has taken a hit. Voters are frustrated by at least the perception that he has not responded forcefully to such outrages and provocations.
I don’t expect the subject matter of, say, the race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis to shift dramatically. The candidates still talk mostly about jobs, education, Obamacare and other domestic issues. But you can expect Tillis to question the president’s performance on national security and for Hagan to distinguish her views on the subject from those of her party’s embattled leader. Neither candidate can afford to ignore the return of security voters in a closely divided state where the electorate is disaffected, distrustful of both parties and likely to pick its next U.S. senator by a narrow margin.