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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The 2012 Election and the U.S. Expatriate Vote

There is an excellent article up on the New York Times website called "Evaluating the Expat Factor" by Brian Knowlton.  Both U.S. presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, have been going after votes and money abroad.  This post by swisspinoy at Isaac Brock pointed out that the Romney campaign revised their website to make it easier for Americans abroad to donate to the campaign.  (Note to the Romney campaign, it still needs work.)

A couple of things worth pointing out here about this election and expatriates:

Political Polarization:  The American political landscape is divided up into two camps often called "Red" and "Blue" (Republicans versus Democrats, Right-wing versus Left-wing).  It appears that voters who consider themselves to be in one or the other camp have pretty much made up their minds and will vote for their candidate.  This is why it is such a close race (see the Politico website here for the latest polls).  Are there other candidates besides these two?  Indeed there are:  libertarians, socialists, greens and independents but they are considered to be irrelevant.  Not much room in this race for those third parties and Americans (to my knowledge) are not allowed to "voter blanc" (none of the candidates).  For all extents and purposes the race is between the Republican and Democrat candidates - between the "Reds" and the "Blues."

The Chase for the Undecided:  This polarization means that the race is on to grab the few independent or undecided voters who have yet to make up their minds a mere two months before the election.  Barring unforeseen circumstances much of the vote is locked in already for one or the other candidate and so their only hope is to find and convince the few people in the homeland and outside of it to vote in their favor.  This means, mes amis, that a small minority of U.S. voters will define the political face of the nation for the next 4+ years.

The Expatriate Vote:  Where do Americans abroad sit in this divided political arena?  No one really knows.  There's no census so even the number of U.S. citizens abroad who are potential voters varies widely between 2 to 7 million.  In 20 years abroad I've never had any direct communication with any political candidate in the U.S.  Unlike last last French election where the candidates sent emails to expats, nothing like that is happening in the ramp up to the 2012 election.    As Knowlton points out the conventional wisdom is that the overseas military votes right and civilians abroad votes left.  Is that true?  Not necessarily.  I've seen many articles that claim that the expat vote is more to the Left (or the Right) but that tends to be based on limited experience.  An American expat in Paris, for example, may look at his social and business circles, see mostly Democrats (or Republicans), and then extrapolate from that.  That is a very dangerous error and anyone who claims the expat vote for one or the other party has very little empirical evidence to back that up.  Knowlton is absolutely right when  he talks about the diversity of this population. There are small businessmen and women, Americans married to foreign nationals, retirees, missionaries and they are scattered all over the world.  Almost every stereotype about Americans abroad is really just hot air and until we get some decent research (and I don't think the studies he cited are conclusive) any broad brush used to paint American expatriates should be taken with a BIG grain of salt.

Just for fun, here are a few other things about the American Diaspora and voting that I think Knowlton didn't talk about in his piece:

Limited Voice:  Our voice (such as it is) is filtered in various ways.  There is the odd nature of how Americans abroad vote (in their last state of residence).  Our opinions often go through the local political party organizations like Democrats or Republicans abroad or the various diaspora organizations like American Citizens Abroad (ACA) or the Association of Americans Residing Abroad (AARO).  The latter are purely non-partisan.  My experience has been however (and please let me know if your experience is different) that most Americans abroad belong to none of these organizations.   Hard to know if either of these organizations (and I truly like them, deeply appreciate their efforts, and am a member of both ACA and AARO) really represents a majority of Americans abroad.   I also question seriously whether the political party overseas branches have any real pull with the homeland party HQ's.  Can they claim to be able to deliver X number of votes or X amount of money?  That's the kind of information homeland politicians want to know before they invest time and money in winning this population over.  And, as far as I know, there are no polls that include the opinions of overseas Americans.  Direct mail to U.S. politicians and candidates is iffy at best - some local politicians never answer at all and some answer with a form letter (like the ones I received from the Romney campaign and from my local U.S. senator).

Influence of the Host Country:  No one talks about this but I think it matters a lot.  People change when they go abroad.  What seemed vitally important in Seattle, Washington becomes much less so a few thousand miles away and in another context.  Events (like 911 or the recession) are viewed from a distance and the main source of information about them is often the local media. Such things are lived differently by those of us who live outside the U.S. and how they are interpreted can be heavily influenced by the people around an expatriate who are not Americans.  Obama is very popular in France and if you live here and are fairly well integrated, your co-workers, family and friends will more than likely share their opinions about who you should vote for and why. They may even express a strong negative opinion if you declare for the other candidate. That situation may be entirely reversed in other countries where Obama is not so popular.

Different Interests: Let's be entirely honest here, the interests of Americans abroad are not exactly the same as the interests of people in the homeland.  For a homelander, Marriage Equality may be a big deal but it's not likely to be one of the top burning issues of an long-term American abroad.  Same for Obamacare since a lot of us live in countries that already have a national healthcare system.  The future of Social Security is a toss-up and depends on if an expatriate qualifies for it or has close family members already in the system.  If not, so what?  On the other hand, the things that Americans abroad really care about like U.S. tax policy, consular protection and citizenship for children born abroad are not even a blip on the radar of the average homeland American. And it must be said that there is one major issue that has united Americans abroad in fear and loathing and that is FATCA. Democrat or Republican abroad, no one likes it and if the discussions on the Internet are anything to go by this is having a major influence on how this population will vote in November.

Probably the only issue that both Americans abroad and homelanders consistently share is foreign policy and even then Americans abroad may have a radically different take on it because they have to live with the consequences of it.  This should not be taken to imply that Americans abroad don't love the U.S. or want the best for it or that homeland Americans don't wish their citizens abroad well (no accusations here) but since the two don't really have much of a dialogue, the default is for everyone to vote his or interests convinced that his or her position is the "right" one.

My conclusion?  If we take the high number of U.S. citizens abroad of about 6 million and assume that a third of them do vote in the next election, that makes for 2 million loose cannons.   Depending on how those votes are allocated (which states have high numbers of expatriate voters) they could change the outcome of Congressional races (senators and representatives).  They could also have an impact on the presidential race.

But there is too much uncertainty and too little information to know for sure.  We'll see what happens in November.  I will confess that I am hoping for a surprise ending - a show of force on the part of the diaspora in November and a little shock and awe in the aftermath.  A wake up call for the homeland courtesy of the "Domestic Abroad."

2 comments:

Charles Jannuzi said...

My estimate is more like something along the lines of 5-10% actually succeed in voting.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Charles, That sounds about right. Hell, even with a very well organized system like the French have with real representatives to vote for, overseas voter turnout tends to be pretty low.

We'll see how it shakes out November.

Victoria