“I really wish we could vote in your election — after all, it affects all of us, you know.”
For most Americans who recently have spent time abroad, chances are they’ve heard some variation of that statement.
As the United States prepares to elect a president every four years, the rest of the world looks on with a mix of hope, trepidation and fascination — and never has that been the case more than this year’s contest between Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.
With the Bush era drawing to a close, more than 150,000 U.S. troops are fighting in two war zones while the world's largest economy is reeling. Meantime, a campaign that has energized American voters also has captivated the world.
Due to the preponderance of U.S. economic, military and cultural power, U.S. elections have a far greater impact on people outside the United States than foreign elections have on Americans.
“There is quite a lot of interest in American politics … so that people feel a personal stake in which way the election goes,” said Steven Casey, a professor at the London School of Economics and an expert on U.S. foreign policy and public opinion.
Msnbc.com’s series, Watching America Vote, has featured reports from more than 15 countries that show how closely the world is tuned in.
- In war-weary Iraq, locals are suspicious that the U.S. candidates are offering “honey promises” that will not spur much change;
- For Israelis and Palestinians, the United States is the traditional powerbroker in peacemaking and the next president could be critical for the peace process;
- Mexicans worry about the stewardship of a U.S. economy that is intertwined with the lives of millions in America’s southern neighbor;
- Many in Pakistan wonder about the impact on the war being fought in Afghanistan — and whether the fighting will continue to spill over its borders;
- For ordinary Iranians, the question will be how the next president will affect the sometimes strained relations between Washington and Tehran;
- Cubans are watching closely the election of their northern neighbor, which strictly enforces an economic embargo;
- In Britain, America's close military ally and cultural cousin, the new foreign and defense policies will be especially scrutinized;
- And in Poland, locals wonder what the leadership change means for the planned U.S. missile defense system based on their soil.
Do Americans care?
But as important as those issues are to locals, the make-or-break issues facing American voters tend to be domestic, not international.
“ I don’t think [foreign opinion] is going to make an impact on this election and I can’t remember an instance in which it made any difference with the American public and voting,” said Karlyn Bowman, a U.S. public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
Wariness about foreign influence dates to the Founding Fathers: that is why the Constitution stipulates that, among other qualifications, a president must be American-born.
Gallup recently found that nearly one-third of the world’s population feels the result of the American election will make a difference in their countries.
Europeans, in particular, perceive a stake in Tuesday’s outcome: roughly two-thirds said it will have an impact for them at home.
“While European preference will not likely affect U.S. voters grappling with domestic issues and concerns, their support for a new administration could go a long way toward restoring the approval of U.S. leadership globally,” Gallup concluded.
But in the rising powers of Asia, the picture is different. Just 16 percent of Chinese and 6 percent of Indians see the election making an impact in their countries — figures Gallup partially attributed to the extreme poverty that persists in rural areas of those countries.
In Latin America, which has received scant attention during the campaign, only about one-third of respondents foresaw a direct impact from the election.
Both candidates have demonstrated sensitivity to foreign public opinion.
McCain has indicated one reason he opposes what he would consider a premature U.S. pullout from Iraq is the damage it would do to American prestige. As the campaign was ramping up this summer, he promoted free trade during visits with his advisers to Colombia and Mexico in an attempt to score points against Obama.
Soon after, Obama took a high-profile five-country trip which saw him at one point speaking to tens of thousands of Berliners waving American flags.
Of his foreign trip, Obama told The Washington Post that his warm reception overseas may not translate to a direct advantage with American voters but it was “knowledge they can store in the back of their minds for when they go into the polling place later.”
‘Two countries – his own and America’
“Today every man has two countries — his own and America,” John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote in 2004’s “The Right Nation.”
“American power is so overwhelming that people everywhere watch America’s politicians just as closely as they watch their own. And with this familiarity has come a growing sense of powerlessness. People around the world feel that they are citizens of the United States in the sense that they are participants in its culture and politics,” they wrote.
But what leads to such exasperation abroad is that U.S. officials are “plainly not accountable to these non-Americans,” the authors wrote.
A warning to U.S. voters?
In September, Jonathan Freedland warned in Britain’s Guardian that an American public that “disdains Obama for his global support risks turning current anti-Bush feeling into something far worse.”
That’s another thing: In nearly every election, polls show that overseas support trends strongly toward Democrats.
In probably the largest such poll, Gallup surveyed people in 73 countries and found a more than 3-to-1 preference for Obama over McCain. Separate global polls by the BBC and Reader’s Digest found similar margins of support for the Illinois senator.
“Large numbers of people around the world clearly like what Barack Obama represents,” said Doug Miller, of GlobeScan, which ran BBC’s survey.
But this international skepticism about Republican candidates is not new.
In Britain and Europe, at least, “the last time there was a really positive perception of a Republican candidate was Eisenhower, which was partly a result of his World War II legacy and also because he was a very charismatic figure,” said Casey, whose recent book is “Selling the Korean War.”
Some of the characteristics of today’s Republican Party, such as an emphasis on moral issues such as abortion, an unwavering support for capital punishment, and a profound skepticism toward international organizations, do not always translate abroad, even in countries with close links to the United States.
“There is a caricature of the Republicans that seems to exist out here and an unease with the cultural-social issues that find a voice in the Republican Party,” Casey said.
“British people tend to be more comfortable with the Democrats because the American political spectrum tends to be further to the right and so they see the Democrats more as small ‘c’ conservatives,” Casey said.
All preferences aside, part of the international interest in the race is also a result of the campaign process itself.
The extended election timeframe, for example, is unique to the United States, as are the peculiarities of the electoral map and, to a lesser extent, the political theater of the conventions.
As the London-based Economist recent wrote admiringly “no other country gives make-or-break power to people in plaid shirts in out-of-the-way places,” showcasing parts of America like the Plains States and the Rust Belt that would not otherwise see the spotlight.
On the sidelines
Still, analysts say foreign observers will have to become accustomed to being just that — observers.
“Americans are, I think, pretty aware of foreign attitudes generally, if not specifically. But I’m not aware of any evidence that those attitudes really have an effect,” Bowman said.
“American voters seem to be pretty set on deciding this election on issues here in the United States,” she said.