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Global issues taking centre stage at US mid-terms

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Trump emphasising international issues for US mid-terms, making it a driving factor in partisan fight

Campaigning for the US mid-terms has reached fever pitch.

Yet, it is not just the public in the US who are following the campaign closely.

People across the globe are watching the mid-terms with interest given the key differences between Democrats and Republicans, and the overall large stakes in play with control of Congress up for grabs.

Part of the reason is that the mid-terms are being perceived very much as a referendum on President Donald Trump's first two years of office, and the results may give an early signal as to whether he will be re-elected in 2020.

But a deeper factor driving foreign interest is the prominence of international issues in the campaign.

Take the example of the so-called "migrant caravan" of several thousand people, which set off from Honduras several weeks ago. Mr Trump has asserted Democrats are responsible for the caravan, which is now around 1,600km away from the Mexico-US border.

Aware that migration issues are salient with many Republican supporters, the president has relentlessly used the issue to energise his base, pledging to stop the caravan from passing into the US by deploying thousands of military personnel.

Another international issue shaping the campaign is the growing US-China trade and security spat.

Last month, Mr Trump sensationally claimed at the UN Security Council, without offering evidence in public, that Beijing had been working to interfere in the mid-terms with the aim of damaging Republicans because of Chinese unhappiness with the White House's stance towards the Asian giant.

The high incidence of international issues in this year's mid-term campaign continues a pattern from Mr Trump's 2016 presidential election victory.

Pew Research Center found then that 34 per cent of the population believed foreign policy was the biggest challenge facing the country. Only 23 per cent mentioned domestic, especially economic, problems.

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This high salience of foreign compared to economic and domestic issues is unusual.

It more resembles the first 25 years of the Cold War, from 1948 to 1972, when international security issues dominated the concerns of US voters.

In contrast, since the early 1970s, economic and domestic matters have tended to be the electorate's highest priority.

For instance, in 2011, just before the presidential election year in 2012, 55 per cent of US citizens cited economic worries as the most important facing the country, according to Pew.Only 6 per cent mentioned foreign policy.

Yet, although foreign and security policy has returned to the forefront of the US electorate's mind, there are significant differences between now and during the first two decades of the Cold War.

The earlier period was characterised by widespread bi-partisan cooperation on foreign and security matters.

Today, however, foreign policy is a significantly more divisive topic politically between Democrats and Republicans.

For instance, many Republicans and Democrats differ significantly on how they view the power and standing of the US internationally; on the degree to which the country should be unilateralist; in their attitudes towards the campaign against terrorism and the methods by which they are being fought; and on what the core priorities of foreign policy should be.

Barring a potentially seismic economic development, such as a massive Wall Street stock market crash, it is likely that the current relatively high salience of foreign issues will remain key to the rest of the campaign.

And the partisan splits on these topics will reinforce high rates of political polarisation in the US electorate.

The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. This is an amended version of an article that was in The Business Times yesterday.

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