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Aldrich, Sullivan, and Borgida: Foreign affairs and issue voting

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Aldrich, Sullivan, and Borgida. 1989. Foreign affairs and issue voting: Do presidential candidates 'waltz before a blind audience'?. APSR 83:123-41.

Main Point

Many scholars argue that (1) mass opinions about foreign issues are poorly formed and (2) these opinions do not decide elections. The literature sees a paradox, then: Why do presidents campaign on foreign affairs when the public doesn't respond to these issues? The authors contend that the public does, in fact, respond to foreign affairs issues.


  • Availability: refers to whether a construct or category is stored in memory
  • Accessibility: refers to the readiness with which a stored construct like an attitude is retrieved from memory.

According to the authors, there is little theoretical reason to expect large differences in the availability and accessibility of foreign and domestic issue attitudes. Foreign issues affect us as much as domestic issues (wars, trade, etc.).


See Fig 1, p 136:

  • Y: The importance of foreign policy issues in a given presidential election
  • X1: Salience/Accessibility of foreign policy issues (e.g. Korean/Vietnam wars, McCarthyism, Iran hostages made foreign policy more salient)
  • X2: Size of difference between candidates' foreign policy stances
    • High difference + high salience = Large effect of foreign issues.
    • See the explanation on p 136


  • Table 1: People have issue preferences about foreign policy just as much as on domestic policy. Moreover, they can place themselves and candidates on an issue scale just as well with foreign policies as with domestic policies.
  • Tables 2 and 3: Many voters see foreign and defense issues as among their most important national or personal problems.
  • Tables 4 and 5: Foreign issue positions are a significant predictor of votes--even in 1984, which scholars previously thought was decided solely on domestic issues. Oddly enough, international issue positions were a better predictor in 1984 than in 1980. In 1984, international issues predicted even better than domestic issues.


The Availability of Foreign Policy Attitudes:

  • The Data: Uses 1980 and 1984 NES data as well as a 1984 Gallup survey to establish whether foreign policy attitudes are as available as domestic policy attitudes.
  • Availability is operationalized as Campbell et al's three conditions that the issue must meet: it must be cognized, arouse some affect, and be accompanied by the perception that one party or candidate best represents the respondent's position. "Domestic" and "foreign" issues are indices of policy questions. Each respondent was asked to place themselves, both candidates, and see the differences between the candidates on a seven point issue dimension for the foreign and domestic indices.
  • They find that for the 1980 NES data, foreign issue attitudes were more available than domestic issue attitude (avg difference 8.2). In the 1984 NES data, availability was about the same (avg difference of 1.3). For 1984 Gallup data, foreign issue attitudes were much more available than domestic issue attitudes (avg difference of 17.4).

The Accessibility of Foreign and Defense Policy: Most Important Problems

  • They use 1984 Gallup and 1980 and 1984 NES data to find out what respondents' listed as "the most important problem facing the country today."
  • They find that over a third of respondents in both surveys selected foreign and defense issues as the most important problem facing the country. In 1984 Gallup, respondents were more concerned with nuclear weapons and the arms race, while in 1980 NES they were more concerned about the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
  • In 1976 by contrast only 4% cited a foreign or defense issue, while in 1972 a third of the public cited foreign affairs, with almost all of them focused on Vietnam. Between 1947 and 1973, the proportion of respondents citing foreign/defense issues never dropped below 22%. Aldrich et. al. argue that 1976 was atypical in that concern in the election was almost entirely focused on economic performance.
  • The authors argue that foreign and defense issue attitudes are ordinarily highly accessible political concerns, and are therefore normally as accessible as domestic issue attitudes. Specific foreign issues tend to dominate the public's foreign policy concerns at various times.

Issue attitudes and candidates:

  • Are perceived differences between candidates as great with foreign issues as with domestic issues? They examine the 1984 Gallup data and the NES data for 1980 and 1984 to see if the public perceived differences between Reagan and his democratic opponents.
  • In all three surveys, respondents saw greater differences on foreign and defence issues than on domestic issues.

Foreign Policy Issues and the Vote:

  • All of the above results suggest that foreign issue attitudes should have a significant impact on electoral choice.
  • Y: whether the respondent voted for Reagan or his democratic opponent
  • Xs:
    • Candidate Evaluations: operationalizesd as the difference between perceptions of the two candidates' leadership qualities (four point scale for NES, seven point scale for Gallup).
    • International policy attitudes: an index created by summing self-placement scores on relevant questions (6 from Gallup, three form 1984 NES and two from 1980 NES).
    • Domestic policy attitudes: another index, created by summing self-placement scores on an equal number of questions used to determine the international index (this gave them some choice in the questions to be included, so they only included the domestic issues that were most strongly related to vote choice).
    • Party Identification: operationalized as the standard question.
  • They use probit analysis, and find that all four X's were significant for all three surveys. This suggests that foreign issue attitudes have just as much affect on vote choice as domestic issue attitudes.


Presidential candidates are right to spend time campaigning on foreign policy issues because attitudes about foreign issues influence voting choices just as much as attitudes about domestic issues. Political scientists were wrong to think that foreign issues didn't matter.