Note: I am currently in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. I am attending an academic seminar this week and will be doing a fieldwork placement during the convention next week. I am writing a daily journal to reflect on my experience and will post my entries here. Enjoy!
This morning, three professors from different universities, each with various expertise and backgrounds, talked about finance, trade, and foreign policy factors in the 2016 election. These topics may not be as exciting or discussed as much as others during the election, but it can still be worthwhile to learn about them. First, Robin Kolodny focused on campaign finance, briefed us about its history, and highlighted current campaign finance issues in this election. After we learned more about campaign finance, Alexandra Guisinger talked with us about the general American opinion on trade. Right before stopping for lunch, Ronald Granieri described the role of foreign policy in past elections and compared current candidates’ takes on foreign policy.
One thing related to campaign finance that I learned today is how candidates of major political parties can receive public funding for their campaigns. Public funding consists of two parts – primary matching funds and general election funding. If you have filled out a federal income tax form before, you probably remember a box that you can voluntarily check to give three dollars of your taxes to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Public funding is completely made up of this tax money, thanks to people who checked that box on their tax forms. Candidates can receive public funding for their campaigns as long as they agree to not raise more than a certain amount of money.
Candidates in the past used this public funding, but no candidate did in 2012 because it seemed like winning the election required using more money than the public funding rules allowed. In fact, candidates are not allowed to coordinate with their political party about spending if they use public funds. Giving up that teamwork may be a bad strategy, so some candidates opt out of general funding completely. Primaries can impact candidates financially, depending on how long they last. Hillary Clinton could not get any general funding until after Bernie Sanders dropped out. The longer he stayed in the race, the longer her campaign had to operate without general funding no matter how obvious it was that she clinched the nomination.
There are also complications involved with following campaign finance, as it is difficult to track where all campaign money comes from and goes to. For instance, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can transfer the money that her supporters donated her to the national party in order to help with the presidential election or any other important federal election. There is no limit for how much money can be transferred between certain candidates/local committees and national parties, so money you donated to a certain Congressperson may end up being used to help fund a presidential candidate’s campaign.
Moving on to trade, it turns out that the U.S. policy on free trade does not correlate with public opinion. While our policy strongly encourages free trade, Americans generally do not support it. It may be because Americans do not know much about trade. Approximately 60% of Americans think China is our top trade partner, but it is actually Canada. If more Americans are aware of this, they may have a more positive view of free trade and less protectionist demands.
Politicians do not often discuss trade in depth, as it is a complicated matter. When it comes to trade, there is no one right answer and one wrong answer. Whether or not free trade is good may depend on where you live. Free trade helps some areas tremendously, but others take hard hits from it. Even so, it is not always crystal clear if free trade helps or hurts your town. It can be both in some cases. For instance, people assume free trade only hurt some cities in Ohio, such as Toledo, yet it is not completely true. While free trade might hurt some parts of these towns, it also helped others. These towns are known for exporting many products and free trade only enhanced their exporting business. There is a reason why Sanders, who is against any free trade agreement, did not win Ohio. At first glance, it may seem like free trade hurt these Ohio towns, but it is more complicated than that. The media tends to focus on negative consequences of free trade agreements, such as how they hurt some towns like Detroit, more than it focuses on their benefits and how they helped certain towns.
How foreign policy is used in elections is indeed fascinating. It certainly has changed over the time. Before the Cold War, American presidential candidates could ignore foreign policy during their campaigns, but this has not been possible since the United States attained its superpower status. I found it interesting how some presidents managed to navigate their way to win the election without having much foreign policy experience. For Bill Clinton, he did it by focusing on the economy. Remember his famous saying, “It’s the economy stupid”? By shifting the problem from foreign policy to the economy, his lack of foreign policy experience did not matter. His vice-president, Al Gore, did not have much experience either. Since the economy was shown as the problem, people did not care about how little foreign policy experience they had.
The 2016 election is different for Republicans, especially in the area of foreign policy. Republicans used to own the foreign policy issue during the Cold War era, but now with Donald Trump being their party nominee, it will be difficult for them to maintain their good foreign policy reputation. It does not get any better that Trump’s opponent, Clinton, was the nation’s top diplomat and has abundant experience in foreign policy. Former Republican candidates struggled to criticize Trump’s lack of seriousness about foreign policy in primaries, as they did not want to end up looking like dorks and help Trump win the fun guy title. As for Clinton, she has to defend her Secretary of State record and still keep her distance from other things like foreign policy conflicts during Obama’s second term. She does not want to seem too affiliated with Obama’s administration and Department of State in the second term, as she was not in charge of it at that time. Obama still can be a good asset for her campaign this fall, so she cannot distance herself too much in general and has to find a balance. We will see more about how both candidates deal with foreign policy when it gets closer to the general election!