Meredith Wheeler’s Barack Obama is wrinkled and a bit tattered; it sags at the knees. She and her colleagues with Democrats Abroad in Toulouse, France, have lugged their smiling cardboard likeness to so many events that they have finally had to order a new one.
Kory Bardash, in Jerusalem, does not own an Obama. But if he and his fellow members of Republicans Abroad Israel did have one, it would probably be more of a piñata: President Obama is their constant target as they mount phone banks to try to win voters — in U.S. cities like Cleveland and Miami — for the Mitt Romney camp.
“We’ve compiled lists of thousands of names,” Mr. Bardash said, focusing on key swing states. “It’s all about Florida and Ohio.”
With the U.S. presidential election just over two months away and the Republican convention opening on Tuesday, it is not lost on either camp that American expatriates might make a difference this year, much like the role they played in Florida in 2000. Overseas voters, especially military voters, cast crucial votes in a close election ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in favor of George W. Bush.
Indeed, the motto of Democrats Abroad-Germany is really more of a battle cry: “We ARE the margin of victory.” Overseas Republicans, of course, say much the same thing.
So, how might Americans overseas be expected to vote this year? Is the conventional wisdom correct that the overseas military leans right and civilians abroad lean left? Might expats again play a crucial role in a close election?
Trying to divine expats’ electoral impact is not simple. Even their numbers are subject to wild disagreement, generally put somewhere between three million and six million. Congress considered an overseas headcount, partly because Utah had sued to ensure that Mormon missionaries be counted. Lawmakers dropped the plan when they learned it would cost some $1,450 per person, nearly 30 times the per-head cost at home, said Sheila Croucher, an immigration specialist at Miami University in Ohio.
But several studies, propelled by new interest since the 2000 election, seek to chip away at questions surrounding expats’ identity and leanings. The findings, some not previously published, help puncture at least some of the conventional wisdom about who expats are.
The common caricature is that expats tend to be affluent, or military-linked, and thus conservative; or unpatriotic malcontents, and thus left-leaning. The actual picture is more complicated.
There are businesspeople, but also students and freelance translators and English teachers and NGO workers; increasingly, too, there are technology employees whose digital work can be done anywhere.
In surveys of nearly 1,000 Americans living primarily in Western Europe, Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, director of migration studies for the University of Kent in Brussels, found that the largest single group — nearly one-quarter — were overseas because of marriage to foreigners. Only 10 to 15 percent had been sent abroad by their company or had accompanied a transferred spouse.
For her Ph.D. in politics at the University of Newcastle, in England, Judith Murray surveyed more than 800 American overseas “participators” — those who vote in U.S. elections. She found they tended to be highly educated (89 percent with at least a Bachelor’s degree), married (60 percent), white (90 percent) and older. But they were not, largely, the leisurely, disaffected rich. The largest single professional group were those in education (22 percent).
To be sure, some Americans have left their country because of discontent with its politics. But Ms. Klekowski von Koppenfels found only a small number — 4.5 percent — who cited political or cultural dissatisfaction as their key motive for leaving home.
Nor is the military picture entirely black and white.
Four years ago, a survey of 4,300 U.S. career military personnel found lopsided support for the Republican — they favored Senator John McCain, himself a former military man, by a whopping 68 percent to 23 percent over Mr. Obama.
But those surveys, by the Military Times, were of career personnel who tended to be older, more senior and less ethnically diverse than the military as a whole. Eight in 10 black respondents backed Mr. Obama.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University politics professor who studies military voting, predicted that Mr. Romney will win the military vote by percentages similar to Mr. McCain’s.
“The reason is that Romney doesn’t have the special appeal that McCain had,” he said, “but Obama doesn’t have the special appeal that Obama had, either. Obama, as near as I can tell, is underperforming his 2008 numbers in every category except maybe African-Americans.”
Richard L. Hasen, a voting specialist at the University of California-Irvine, said that despite concerted legislative efforts since 2000 to reduce obstacles to overseas voting, military participation rates remain “abysmally low.”
This year, a look at all donations from overseas — civilian and military — shows Mr. Obama with a big edge: The president has raised $779,000 so far to $383,368 for Mr. Romney, the Center for Responsive Politics found, using federal data.
Both men did well in Britain, with Mr. Obama receiving $246,000 and Mr. Romney $219,000. The Republican’s second largest overseas source was Americans in China, nearly all from Hong Kong, for a total of $114,000; Mr. Obama raised only $39,000 there.
Mr. Obama fared better in Europe: His second biggest source of foreign cash was France, with $110,000, far overshadowing Mr. Romney’s $2,500 there.
At the same time, some Democrats acknowledged a passion deficit.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that the enthusiasm of 2008 is not being replicated in 2012,” said Ms. Wheeler of Democrats Abroad-Toulouse. But she attributed that largely to what she called an “obstructionist G.O.P.”
Peter R. Dahlen, an attorney in Stockholm and former president of the American Club of Sweden, said that he was seeing “decidedly less enthusiasm than in 2008 or even 2004,” even though “President Obama is still the preferred candidate, even among many Republicans here.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Bardash said that enthusiasm in Israel for Mr. Romney was high. “I’m getting people who’ve never voted, and I’m getting people who’ve never voted Republican” ready to support Mr. Romney, he said.
Credit: By Brian Knowlton, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com.