The Impact of Attitudes toward Foreign Policy Goals on Public Preferences among Presidential Candidates: A Study of Issue Publics and the Attentive Public in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election

Article excerpt

At each moment in history, every democratic government finds itself facing many national problems in need of solution, and as a result, a primary mission of government is formulating, proposing, evaluating, ratifying, and implementing policies to address numerous issues. Throughout the history of the United States, much of government's attention has been devoted to such domestic issues as unemployment, crime, education, social welfare, health care, environmental pollution, energy provision, and more. Such problems pose immediate and obvious threats to American citizens, apparent in many people's daily lives. At the same time, however, the U.S. government has always spent a great deal of effort dealing with issues of international relations: managing cooperation with allies; providing financial aid to countries in need; managing trade relations; building, equipping, and maintaining the U.S. military; combating terrorism, and at times, going to war.

This process of formulating policies and implementing them is importantly shaped by a nation's populace, via many routes. Citizens can and do make their policy attitudes known to government officials via opinion polls, by giving money to lobbying organizations, and by attending rallies. Individuals can also communicate their views on policy issues directly to elected representatives by sending letters or making telephone calls. And citizens can use their policy attitudes when deciding which candidates for public office to support, thus enhancing the likelihood that the elected officials will share voters' own views.

In order for the members of the general public to take any of these steps, they must have formed attitudes on policy issues. They must think about and understand an issue enough to decide which policy approaches they wish to support and which they wish to oppose. Therefore, understanding when citizens form and express opinions on policy issues and when they do not has been a topic of study for political scientists for decades.

One particularly intriguing question in this arena has been the extent to which Americans form and express opinions on foreign policy issues. According to some scholars, most people are only engaged by policy matters that directly touch their own lives, such as taxes and health care (e.g., Almond 1950; Kagay and Caldeira 1980; Light and Lake 1985; Rosenau 1961). Foreign policy, by its very nature, involves matters that play out far away from most citizens. Certainly, the news media have brought vivid images of distant places into Americans' living rooms, and very recent history has made the everyday relevance of foreign peoples especially apparent to all Americans. But relations with African countries, economic aid to Mexico, and weapons agreements with Russia have implications for most people that are vague at best. Therefore, say some scholars, most issues of foreign affairs are unlikely to be of sufficient concern to most people most of the time for them to form opinions about desirable or undesirable courses of action (e.g., Almond 1950; Converse 1964; Hughes 1978; Rosenau 1961). As a result, vote choices and lobbying organization efforts will rarely reflect such opinions.

But who composes the minority contradicting this general rule? Who does, in fact, use international relations matters to decide which candidates to support and to give money to lobbying organizations with purely international foci? Two different and competing scholarly answers to these questions are evident in the literature. According to Almond (1950), this subgroup is the "attentive public," an elite group of citizens who are especially attentive to and informed about a wide range of public affairs issues. People for whom CNN and The New York Times are central components of everyday life cannot help but learn and ruminate about a wide range of foreign affairs issues, so they form and use attitudes on all of them. To the extent that government's foreign policy actions are shaped by public opinion, it is these individuals' opinions that should be consequential because these are the people with such opinions (e. …


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