One of the most entrenched axioms in American politics is that foreign policy plays a minor, or even negligible, role in shaping voters' preferences in presidential elections, effectively taking a back seat to socio-economic matters.
One would expect, then, that the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney would focus his campaign entirely on economic issues to fully capitalize on President Barack Obama's perceived failure to take the U.S. economy out of its doldrums and put it on a trajectory of growth and prosperity.
Moreover, with the two contenders running neck and neck, and with Romney outpolling Obama on the question of who would be a better steward of the economy, Romney's decision to retreat from the battlefield in favor of a six-day tour abroad in the midst of a grueling campaign may appear puzzling at first glance. But if you take a hard look at Romney's itinerary – Britain, Israel and Poland – you would find that London, Jerusalem and Warsaw neatly dovetail with the former Massachusetts governor's race to the White House: Apart from Romney's desire to project the image of an authoritative leader well-versed on foreign policy issues, his tour also caters to specific constituents, and chief among them are Jews, evangelicals and Catholics. These groups may ultimately put Romney over the top in this election.
The Romney campaign hopes the visit to Israel will make it easier for him to garner at least 40 percent of the Jewish vote by branding him as a stalwart supporter of Israel and as someone who fully identifies with its concerns. The 40% threshold has been a coveted goal for quite some time: In 2008, only 22% of Jews voted for then Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. Although the Jewish vote has lost some of its luster in this election cycle to other constituents such as Hispanics, the choice Jewish voters make could still have strategic ramifications in several key states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, whose many electoral votes are prized by both camps. There is no doubt that Romney's wholehearted embrace of Israel may help his standing among the evangelical base (an estimated 60 million people or more), which has from the get-go viewed Romney with suspicion and wariness.
In other words, Romney's tour of the Holy Land is designed to send a forceful and tangible message to the tens of millions of pro-Israel evangelical voters: The candidate is solidly behind Israel. This could conceivably have them park their support with him and join his camp.
And finally, there is the Catholic vote, and particularly the support of Polish-Americans.
Romney is expected to meet former Polish President Lech Walesa, who as the leader of the Solidarity movement helped spur a revolution that freed Poland from the yoke of Communism in the 1980s (Walesa refused to meet with Obama when the latter visited Poland in May 2011). This meeting, and Romney's hardline approach toward Moscow, are both designed to boost his popularity among this most important constituency. About 10 million Catholics consider themselves Polish-American, and most of them are clustered in the so-called rust belt states in the Midwest, the home of many manufacturing plants. Some of these states may prove crucial in determining who becomes president.