Why you should care
Because what’s said overseas today could impact the policies of our next president.
The gaffe-tastic sound bite echoed around the world: presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, atop the global stage in Jerusalem, referring to Russia as the “Soviet Union” before correcting himself. In the same speech, though, he also ruffled feathers by going against long-standing U.S. policy and declaring that Israel doesn’t occupy the West Bank; then implied that Jordan was Israel’s hostile neighbor — despite a long-held peace treaty between the two countries. Ah, well, on to the next stop.
These days the campaign trail that winds to the White House is going hyper-global, with Oval Office aspirants trying to raise big bucks overseas from some of the 8.7 million Americans who are living abroad while playing up their international cachet to wealthy constituents back home. Already this year, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal have joined Huckabee with their own foreign pit stops. And the overseas swings are occurring earlier than ever — well before the primaries, but also often before candidates officially declare they’re running. “This seems to be something new that has evolved in the past few elections,” says Kathryn Solon, the Germany-based chairperson for Democrats Abroad, a group under the Democratic Party.
Certainly, a zip across the pond can help a candidate look more “presidential.” It can also convince political power brokers that a candidate is a safe bet, especially for, say, governors with little or no foreign policy experience beyond the occasional trade mission. So whether it’s a photo op with Germany’s Angela Merkel (nice mug, Jeb!) or foreign leader name-dropping after a closed-door chitchat (as Scott Walker had done — when he was still in the race — with the U.K.’s David Cameron), “all candidates want to tick off the foreign policy box on their résumé,” says Colleen Graffy, a former diplomat who’s now a Pepperdine University law professor.
These sorts of trips are unlikely to stop, even if they fail to give any candidate a significant edge.
But where candidates tend to stop has changed. In the past, politicians predictably focused their travel on Ireland, Israel and Italy — the thinking being that these locales had ethnic links to important electoral communities back home. That’s less the case today, despite Israel remaining on most itineraries, as more Republicans are visiting newer allies in Eastern Europe, often with stops in Canada and Latin America as well. While Britain is another obvious choice, given its shared language and an uncontroversial alliance, London’s role, specifically, as the center of international finance, offers candidates a chance to top up campaign coffers.
Which raises the question: How much is in it for campaigners who burn all those air miles? Well, for starters, candidates can accept money from overseas donors only as long as they’re U.S. citizens or permanent residents. That money is then subject to the same $2,500-a-person rule Americans back home must follow. So marquee names tend to do the best abroad: Bush, who traveled to Germany, Poland and Estonia just ahead of his announcement, raised more than $50,000 abroad during the first half of this year, more than any other Republican, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has yet to drive her campaign’s “Scooby” van overseas, but has already raised more than $312,000 overseas. (No doubt visiting 112 countries as secretary of state helped.)
Yet overseas contributions are just a drop in the overall presidential-fundraising bucket. Clinton, for one, raised more than $67 million overall by the end of July, while donations for Bush totaled around $120 million — meaning less than 1 percent for each candidate came from overseas donors. More broadly, elections are rarely decided on foreign policy, and candidates are also “much more interested in what is happening in swing states than, for example, in Singapore or any other country,” says John Hudak, a campaign expert and fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Then there’s all that potential backlash, like when “Mitt the Twit” Romney appeared in a tabloid headline in 2012 after remarks in London earned him a rebuke from both the city’s mayor and the British prime minister. More recently, and before he dropped out of the running, Walker told Time that Cameron and other leaders had told him they were worried about America’s “lead-from-behind mentality” — something Cameron’s spokesperson noted was never said. Meanwhile, Christie stirred up controversy in the U.K. after he weighed in on the debate about whether parents should be able to choose to have their kids vaccinated. While one of Christie’s aides later tried to clarify the governor’s comments, the damage was already done. (Neither this year’s candidates, nor Romney, responded to OZY’s requests for comment.)
Still, these sorts of trips are unlikely to stop, even if they fail to give any candidate a significant edge. Clinton remains the Democratic front-runner, while Donald Trump’s flamboyant campaign has propelled him ahead of rival Republicans. Not bad for a guy for whom the closest thing to an international trip was a three-hour visit to Laredo, Texas, where he called for building a wall to separate the U.S. from Mexico.