On November 8th, US Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will hope more than a year on the campaign trail – full of speeches, fundraisers, and presidential debates – will be enough to secure the top political seat in the country. Much has been made of their respective campaigns, Clinton most notably for her email scandal and Trump for his panoply of insults and caustic speeches. But with the political ontogenesis of both characters known[1], where do they stand in the polls, and what do their foreign policies look as Presidential nominees?

Polls have historically been the entry point for political discourse on the favourability of Presidential candidates, and although their objectivity is often overstated, they do provide interesting insights into possible voting trajectories of people across the country. Historically, the Democrats have won states on the east and west coast of the US, with California, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire traditionally “blue” states[2]. On the Republican side, the Deep South and Midwest, notably Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, have historically been a bastion of “red” states[3]. Polls suggest that the voting patterns in these states are unlikely to change and both candidates are likely to regain these states.

More importantly, therefore, are the so-called “swing states”, the closely contested states that usually determine the outcome of an election. In this election, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Virginia are set to be the key swing states. According to the polls, however, Clinton retains a small lead in all of these states, which is particularly significant given that Arizona and Georgia have been Republican states in the last four elections (won by 8% on average). If Trump is going to win the election he has to regain these two states, and push on and try and “swing” another state, all three of which were Democrat states in the last election. His great opportunity is in Florida, where he is only 4.6% behind Clinton[4], and whose importance cannot be overstated: it holds the joint third highest number of electoral votes (29) and is generally considered a key Presidential indicator having voted for the President in 9 of the last 10 elections[5].

In addition to this, both candidates are pursuing the so-called “rust-belt” states that occupy the north central part of the US, namely Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. These are blue-collar, industrial states that were Democrat states in 2012 and which Trump believes he can change to red states. Yet according to the polls, Clinton has a small lead in all five states, suggesting that across the board she holds a narrow advantage over Trump with the onus on the political newcomer to focus more intently on rallying support in these areas.

In fact, Trump needs to be wary that he doesn’t spread his campaigning net over too wide an area. Red states that Trump must hold to have any chance of success, such as North Carolina, Georgia and Kansas, are precariously close, with Trump only holding a marginal lead in Kansas, which is astonishing given that Kansas has historically been a bastion of Republican support having voted for the Democrats once since 1940[6].

The slight lead for Clinton across the polls and in swing states is an indicator of the slowly declining support for Trump. At the end of July, cumulative polls indicated that Trump held a 1.1% lead over Clinton. After almost a month, Clinton has assailed a 5.8% lead over Trump[7]. This is in part down to Trump’s recent criticism of a fallen American army soldier, his truculent assertion that Obama was “the founder” of ISIS, and insidious comments alluding to the killing of Clinton by those who opposed her second amendment views. Trump’s recent whirlwind statements seem to have finally resonated with the American public and have coincided with a slide down the polls.

Moreover, his inexperience at the highest political level is seeping into the foreground and time is running out to alter his firebrand orator style to that of Presidential material, despite his assertion that he will not change his temperament as it “has gotten me here”[8]. His recent speech in Ohio on ISIS and Foreign Policy was supposed to be the apogee in his political development, but was mindlessly read off a prompter and lacked any original ideas. He suggested to set up a global conference on ISIS with Sisi, Israel and King Abdullah, impose stronger sanctions on Iran – indeed his senior foreign policy advisor Walid Phares says Trump will remove the Iran deal if elected – and claims he will befriend any “moderate Muslim reformers” that desire to fight ISIS[9].

Furthermore, his renewed positivity towards NATO, decisiveness to crush ISIS and desire to use the brightest minds in Silicon Valley, the US’s technology hub, to thwart cyber attacks aligns very strongly with Clinton and indeed continues the policies of Obama in the region. Yet, one differing aspect of Trump’s foreign policy would be to end “nation-building”, pertinent given 57% of Americans want the US to stay out of other countries’ affairs. Trump is playing the card that he has used successfully throughout his campaign, that of the demagogue, pandering to the concerns and fears of the public, further exemplified by his assertion that he was “against the Iraq invasion”, an event that many US politicians are still lambasted for, not least Clinton[10].

But despite Trump’s speeches, his true stance on foreign policy remains mired in the contradictory, particularly as his advisors complicate matters by expatiating incongruous views from that of their candidate. Trump’s senior policy advisor, Stephen Miller, who resembles the Trump fabric as a nativist (one who desires to protect “native-borns” against immigrants) and backs Trump’s policy to “build the wall” on the Mexican border, has been quoted saying that the United States under Donald Trump will continue to spread a message promoting “a better way of life” in countries with oppressive governments, but denies that this is the same as nation building[11]. Even Trump’s own claims that he didn’t support the Iraq War don’t reflect reality, as he affirmed his support for the invasion in a 2002 interview with Howard Stern[12].

Ultimately those around Trump will heavily influence his views. Among these advisors is Senator Jess Sessions, a man who was touted as “Trump before Trump” and an early advocate of a “bigger, better, taller border fence”. He forms a part of Trump’s wider military and foreign policy advisors alongside Walid Phares and Lt. Gen Michael T. Flynn. As Republican figures with establishment ideas, they will likely push for greater influence abroad and closer ties with Russia; Trump’s own policy opinions are pro-Russia and his advisors reinforce rather than challenge these narratives with Lt. Flynn and Miller having both publicly advocated strongly for a closer US-Russia relationship, which will have ramifications in the Middle East if Trump is elected.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is the stalwart of US politics, having witnessed Presidential life as First Lady, served as Senator of New York, and led the US abroad as Secretary of State. Her domestic policies have remained constant throughout her campaign, but her foreign policies still continue to waver slightly, even if her views on fighting foreign terrorism remain consistent and form an extension of Obama’s policies. As President, she would intensify coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria, step up support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground, pursue a diplomatic strategy in Syria, and help solve “Iraq’s sectarian war”[13]. She also wants to work with the brightest minds of Silicon Valley “to more effectively track and analyse ISIS’s social media posts and map jihadist networks online”.

Touted in many circles as a hawk, this is ultimately her biggest downfall. After becoming Senator in 2011, Clinton visited every single military installation in her state and began to build up relationships with the generals in command at that time. The following year, the Senate’s Democratic leaders approached her with the choice of a seat on the Foreign Affairs or Armed Services committee, for which she chose the latter military option. As Vali Nasr, a foreign-policy strategist who advised Clinton on Afghanistan and Pakistan when she was Secretary of State, notes, “she believes in the importance of the military—in solving terrorism, in asserting American influence”[14].

But it is her stance on Syria, therefore, that is most concerning in the Middle East. At a rally in November 2015, Clinton asserted that airstrikes in Syria had to be met with the requisite boots on the ground. Yet at a recent rally in Scranton Pennsylvania, Clinton condemned Trump for talking about sending in “American ground troops” and replied, “that is off the table, as far as I’m concerned”[15]. Despite flitting between the two options, her history of often picking the most interventionist option, most notably with military involvement in Libya, indicates her likely imposition of wider military involvement in Syria, particularly to thwart Russian presence (particularly the “dictator” Putin) and re-establish the US as the dominant foreign power in the region.

In a recent article, however, Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky argue that Clinton will not be the “uber hawk” that many except, as she will have few options for intervention, wants to maintain her history as a domestic policy-promoter without being imbued in campaigns abroad, and in the past has in fact touted the virtues of “smart power”[16]. But like Trump, her advisors, who are establishment figures, who promote the idea of US influence globally, will heavily shape her decisions.

Among them, and arguably one of the most important, is General Jack Keane who has, and will be, a strong influence on Clinton regarding her military actions. According to The New York Times’s Mark Landler, Keane represents “the greatest single influence on the way Hillary Clinton thinks about military issues”[17]. Keane is a strong advocate for “blistering air strikes on Syria” and advocates boots on the ground in the country. In Iraq, he believes it is necessary to send “thousands not hundreds of advisors” to Sunnis in Iraq, give them training, and provide weaponry[18]. As a military stalwart, he is a promoter of neo-conservative ideology, and, given what he perceives as growing Russian influence in Syria and growing Iranian influence in Iraq, will push Clinton to exert military muscle to re-exert US force in the region.

Another key influence is Ambassador Nicolas Burns, who is a foreign policy advisor having served in government under George Bush and Bill Clinton. Burns is another establishment figure who pushes for the US’s continuation at the forefront as a global leader, backs the use of article 5 (attack a NATO member and the US will respond accordingly), and would have backed putting more weapons in the hands of the Sunni majority Arab community in 2012 as well as today in 2016[19]. Arguably two of Clinton’s biggest influences are therefore proponents of the neo-liberal policies of the US government, and desire to exert American influence abroad. It is difficult to argue that Clinton will contravene their advice on Syria and Iraq if she is elected President, but her need to balance domestic and foreign policy, something that was not as important during her time as Secretary of State, will hopefully bring her into the centrist ground.

Both candidates have a lot of work to do before November 8th. Yet, despite the differences portrayed between the two candidates, their policies do not differ considerably in reality. Both candidates’ advisors are proponents of exerting US influence abroad and although Trump seems anti-nation building and panders to populist opinion of not involving the US abroad militarily, his views that “we should have taken the oil in Iraq” and questioning three times in an hour-long briefing with advisors why he shouldn’t use nuclear weapons[20], does not set him in an ‘non-intervening’ light. His inexperience therefore is likely to see Clinton attain presidency, but it is not guaranteed. Trump’s campaign is run on fear of “the other”, and if Clinton slips up in the Presidential debates, the email scandal once again rears its ugly head, or Trump manages to exploit another attack to his advantage the tables might swiftly turn in his favour.


[1] Bayan

[2] “Blue” is the colour assigned to Democrat states

[3] “Red” is the colour assigned to Republican states

[4] http://www.270towin.com/2016-polls-clinton-trump/florida/

[5] http://www.270towin.com/states/Florida

[6] http://www.270towin.com/states/Kansas

[7] http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_clinton-5491.html

[8] http://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/trump-temperament-no-strategy-change-226813

[9] http://www.thenational.ae/world/americas/trump-vows-to-be-a-friend-to-all-moderate-muslim-reformers-in-the-middle-east

[10] http://heavy.com/news/2016/08/live-stream-livestream-donald-trump-foreign-policy-speech-isis-fight-plan-address-youngstown-ohio-rally-watch-online-youtube/

[11] http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/06/stephen-miller-donald-trump-2016-policy-adviser-jeff-sessions-213992

[12] http://www.ontheissues.org/2016_CNN_GOP_Town_Hall.htm

[13] https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/combating-terrorism/

[14] http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/what-sort-of-foreign-policy-hawk-is-hillary-clinton

[15] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/joe-biden-hillary-clinton-scranton-pennsylvania/

[16] https://www.brookings.edu/2016/08/12/why-hillary-clinton-wouldnt-be-a-foreign-policy-hawk-as-president/

[17] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/magazine/how-hillary-clinton-became-a-hawk.html?ref=topics

[18] Hoover Institute talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gI55ecnIDRE

[19] BBC Hardtalk interview 08/08/2016

[20] MSNBC “Good Morning Joe”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O13kaQAg5KE