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Column: Ukraine Crisis Could Impact US Elections

Reaction in the United States to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over rebel-held areas of Ukraine continues to be harshly critical of Russia and the separatist rebels they back in eastern Ukraine.

The intense focus of international outrage over the incident and the challenge facing the administration of President Barack Obama suggests the crisis could be a factor in U.S. midterm congressional elections in November.

President Obama is trying to keep the pressure on Russia and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to cooperate with international efforts to find out who was responsible for shooting down the plane last week with a surface-to-air missile.

“We have to make sure that the truth is out and that accountability exists,” the president said at the White House this week.

There is no shortage of outrage in the U.S. over the incident.

A Washington Post editorial said the behavior of Russian leaders and the rebels they back in eastern Ukraine has been “a lesson in barbarity and morally contemptible statecraft.” A New York Times editorial said the “callousness” of the Russian-backed rebels on the ground in the aftermath of the crash and their Russian sponsors was “outrageous.”

Opposition Republicans are scrutinizing President Obama’s response to the situation in Ukraine and some, like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are demanding that he take a tougher stance.

“The Europeans are never going to lead on this issue. It is indispensable that America lead and there is a battle of wills between the KGB colonel and the community organizer and the colonel is winning,” Graham told NBC’s Meet the Press program.

Americans wary of military force

The debate over the U.S. response to Russia comes in the wake of a new poll by Politico that shows Americans are more reluctant to support direct military engagement overseas. The poll was conducted before the shoot down of Malaysia Flight 17.

The survey shows deep reluctance among the public for U.S. military intervention in Ukraine and Syria, and support for the pullout of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Alexander Burns of Politico said he was surprised by the vehemence many voters expressed in the poll that it was time for the U.S. to keep away from overseas conflicts.

“You might have guessed that the public is not overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the idea of foreign military adventures at this point,” Burns told reporters at a Politico briefing in Washington. “I don’t know that I would have guessed that they were this unenthusiastic about foreign military engagements to the point where you have big majorities of Republicans saying that they support the plan to get everybody out of Afghanistan. Big majorities, across age groups, across races, geographically consistent just saying, 'you know, let the rest of the world deal with its own damn problems.'”

The poll showed that 89 percent of voters believe foreign policy will be an important issue in this year’s U.S. congressional elections.

But Burns said that when voters in the survey were asked to name the issue that matters most to them, only 11 percent said foreign affairs, defense or terrorism. Foreign policy traditionally ranks low on the list of priorities for voters in a congressional election year.

Most analysts believe this year’s elections will be driven by voter opinions about the economy, President Obama, and local issues. President Obama’s public approval ratings remain low at or slightly above 40-percent.

Political Analyst Charlie Cook said that is usually a political danger sign for the president’s Democratic Party in the November election.

“In the post-World War II era we have had six of these second [presidential] term mid-term elections, and in five out of six the party in the White House got really, really hurt badly in either the House or the Senate or both,” Cook said. “The circumstances were different but the outcome was almost entirely the same of ugly election outcomes.”

University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato believes Republicans should be doing better than they are this year, though, given the huge advantage they have in going after so many Democratic Senate incumbents in Republican-leaning states.

“This is the best map for Republicans since 1980,” he said. “They should run up a huge margin based on the conditions that ought to be present in sixth year [of a president’s term] election. Ain’t happening so far. It’s just not happening.”

Impact on 2016

Yes, it’s early and lots of things can and will happen between now and the 2016 presidential race, but some early trends are becoming apparent.

First off, and this is no surprise, Democrats seem to love Hillary Clinton and desperately want her to run for president.

The latest NBC News-Marist poll is eye-popping. Clinton leads Vice-President Joe Biden in the early contest state of Iowa by a margin of 70 to 20 percent. And the margin is even larger in New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state, with Clinton leading Biden by a margin of 74 to 18 percent.

A Gallup poll also shows that Clinton is the best liked of the potential contenders for 2016 from either party. She tops the list with 55 percent having a favorable opinion of her.

The top Republican contender in terms of likability is former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He gets a positive rating from 33 percent in the poll, while 21 percent have a negative view.

In one sense the numbers concerning Clinton are not too surprising. She has had big leads all along in both those states and in nationwide polling.

But this latest survey comes in the wake of the Clinton book tour for Hard Choices, the memoir of her time as President Obama’s secretary of state. Clinton ran into some flak during her promotional tour with comments about her wealth that Republicans and even some Democrats saw as out of touch, raising questions as to whether she is ready for “prime time” after being out of the political arena since her failed bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008.

The Marist poll confirms Clinton as the clear frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. The results also show that Clinton could face a much tougher time, however, convincing swing voters that she would be the best choice for president.

For example in Iowa, Clinton is tied with Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky in a head-to-head matchup, with both candidates drawing 45 percent. Clinton holds a one-point lead over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in Iowa, 44 to 43 percent, and bigger leads over other potential Republican contenders like Texas Senator Ted Cruz (49-37 percent) and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (50-37 percent).

Despite Clinton’s big lead among Democrats, most analysts still believe that she is likely to face a challenger from the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party if she decides to run.

Among the possible contenders are Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders and California Governor Jerry Brown. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a favorite among liberals for her focus on economic populism, is busy on the campaign trail for Democratic Senate candidates around the country.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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