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Lessons from the Overseas Trip

Let’s give this until at least the middle of next week before we conclude that Obama hasn’t gotten some kind of bounce from his trip abroad; some of the polls that came in after the deadline today were pretty good for him. But one speculative conclusion might be as follows: placing more emphasis on foreign policy may not be a winner for Barack Obama — even if he closes the gap with McCain on the issue.

We might think of it like this. Suppose that, in the status quo, 75 percent of voters base their vote on domestic policy, and those voters go to Obama 60:40. The remaining 25 percent base their votes on foreign policy, and they vote for McCain 70:30. Under this scenario, Obama would win the election by five points:

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[Status Quo]     % Voting  Obama    McCain
Foreign Policy 25 30 70
Domestic Policy 75 60 40
Total 100 52.5 47.5

Now suppose this: Obama emphasizes foreign policy. As a result, he cuts his deficit with McCain on that issue from 70-30 to 65-35. But he also increases the percentage of the public that base their decision on foreign policy from 25 percent to 35 percent. (Indeed, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, attention to Iraq and Afghanistan has increased by about that margin within the past week). The electorate now looks as follows:

[FP Emphasis]    % Voting  Obama    McCain
Foreign Policy 35 35 65
Domestic Policy 65 60 40
Total 100 51.25 48.75

Now, instead of leading by five points, Obama leads by just two-and-a-half — even though the strategy succeeded in improving perceptions about his ability to handle foreign policy.

What you’re hoping for in the long-run, of course, is something like this:

[Long-Term?]     % Voting  Obama    McCain
Foreign Policy 25 35 65
Domestic Policy 75 60 40
Total 100 53.75 46.25

That is, in the long-run, the public’s emphasis shifts back to domestic policy, which is where Obama wants it. But among those voters who do want to vote on foreign policy, he has assuaged some concerns and made some permanent gains. This results in him leading by 7.5 points rather than five.

Granted, this has been a rather arbitrary exercise. But it wouldn’t surprise me if something like this is going on. You’re still giving McCain a sort of home-court advantage by fighting every day over foreign policy, even if you’re winning some of the skirmishes.

The other substantive takeaway is that it may be a mistake for Obama to pick a Vice President who shifts the emphasis to foreign policy. So those of you who had Mssrs. Biden, Clark, Reed, Hagel, or Nunn in the Democratic Veepstakes, it may be time for a short.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.