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How Afghanistan will (and won’t) matter in 2022 midterms

Foreign policy rarely a top issue, but it affects voter attitudes

ANALYSIS — No, the 2022 midterm elections will not be about Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean the situation won’t matter. 

While Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump contributed to the military morass, and there was close to bipartisan consensus that leaving Afghanistan was the right thing to do, there are very few people defending how President Joe Biden has handled the departure.

Right now the situation has to be considered a fiasco, but I’m not convinced Afghanistan will be a top issue next fall.

[Biden pledges to evacuate Afghan allies as chaos continues at Kabul airport]

While the news and pictures coming from Afghanistan are saturating the conversation now, it’s not sustainable as a top story. The attention spans of Americans are simply too short, particularly for events happening nearly 7,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., with relatively few Americans directly involved. Nearly eight months ago, hundreds of people invaded the U.S. Capitol building, and the story has a tough time staying in the headlines. 

The midterms are still more than a year away. Plenty of other events, human-caused or natural disasters, will replace Afghanistan as the country’s top story. The economy and the pandemic are poised to be at the top of voters’ minds.

Also, we simply do not have elections focused on foreign policy, at least not in recent history.  

Foreign policy wasn’t in the top four issues voters thought were the most important in the 2020 or 2018 elections, according to the exit polls. In 2016, foreign policy was a distant third, tied with immigration at 13 percent, while 52 percent of voters cited the economy and 18 percent thought terrorism was the most important issue. 

Foreign policy was fourth in 2014 (13 percent) and fourth in 2012 (5 percent). In 2010, the war in Afghanistan was also fourth, when just 7 percent of voters said it was the most important issue. We’re selfish Americans focused on what directly impacts us. 

In 2006, the exit poll question was asked a little differently, and 67 percent of voters said that Iraq was extremely important or very important to their vote. That war contributed to President George W. Bush’s deteriorating job rating and Democrats’ takeover of both the House and Senate that cycle.

Two years later, 10 percent of voters cited Iraq as the second most important issue, following a whopping 63 percent who said the economy was most important. But the war in Iraq had a dismal 38 percent approval/63 percent disapproval rating by that point, and contributed to Barack Obama’s election as president and Democrats’ expanding their House majority.

Overall decline

That’s the bigger political fear for the Democrats. Not that the Afghanistan withdrawal is at the top of voters’ minds, but that it contributes to the overall decline of Biden’s standing and that he has a tough time recovering. 

Based on job approval, Biden is at the lowest point of his presidency. As of Sunday, FiveThirtyEight’s average had Biden’s job rating at 49 percent approve/46 percent disapprove and RealClearPolitics’ average was 48 percent approve/48 percent disapprove. That’s not great news for Democrats considering midterm elections are typically referenda on the president’s performance. If voters don’t like the job the president is doing in a midterm, then they often take it out on candidates of his party.

But Biden’s Afghanistan situation doesn’t suddenly put Democratic control of Congress at risk. It was already at risk. Republicans need to gain just five seats to regain the House and a single seat to take the Senate. And according to historical midterm trends, Republicans are poised to do well in 2022, particularly in the House. 

Democrats need a lot of things to go right to buck that trend. Governing competently is one way to do that, and the current situation in Afghanistan is not helping their cause. 

Republicans have already telegraphed one of the core messages for 2022, including the recent developments in the Middle East. “Under Joe Biden, there is chaos in Afghanistan, crime in our streets, and a border in crisis,” according to the opening line of an Aug. 18 release from the Republican National Committee. The subject line was even more succinct: “Under Biden, Americans are less safe.”

That framing allows almost any crime or wrongdoing to land at the feet of Biden and the Democrats. Since crime isn’t going to be eradicated in the next 14 months, Democrats will be on the defensive. And any terrorist attack tied to Islamist ideology, whether it happens on foreign or domestic soil, will skip promptly past the typical rally-around-the-flag period and go immediately to the blame game. 

So, yes, Democrats are at risk of losing control of Congress in 2022 and the Afghanistan situation isn’t helping, but it’s also unlikely to be the focus or deciding factor in the midterm elections.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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