11/06/2012 07:02 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

How Expats And Travelers Could Help Obama

Though the swing state's worth of the American electorate that lives or are currently traveling overseas could conceivably change the outcome of today's presidential election, the group has been ignored by pollsters and analysts. In fact, this geographically diverse constituency is so overlooked that estimates of their numbers range from 3 million to 6.3 million -- or the populations of Iowa or Missouri, respectively -- and even pundits have been reticent to predict their voting behavior.

That said, there are a number of reasons to believe that, if the election were to be decided by expatriates, President Barack Obama would have a lot to smile about.

The expatriate and traveling community is, first and foremost, wildly diverse. Though it has historically been broken down into two parts, military and non-military, the non-military segment now includes -- to name just a few -- business people, NGO workers, students studying abroad, those married to foreign spouses, wanderers and missionaries. These people live in small African villages, Asian megalopolises, tense Middle Eastern cities and many other places around the world.

These communities, according to Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonpartisan group working to make voting from abroad easier, are influential in how overseas Americans make their voting decisions.

"It would be wrong to suggest that Americans' votes are not influenced by their host countries," Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. "Expats have experiences like using universal health care and feeling the effects of foreign policy that inform how they think. There aren't polls of expat voters but polls of other countries can be indicative."

Those polls have strongly favored Obama. The president would win by a 96 percent margin in France, an 82 percent margin in Germany and a 66 percent margin in the U.K., according to a recent Marshall Fund study. In fact, the only country that supported Mitt Romney in a recent poll of foreigners taken by MSN was China, a country the Republican presidential nominee has criticized time and again over the course of the campaign.

Vicki Hansen, the Vice Chair of Democrats Abroad and an Iowa voter, puts the effect of cultural immersion in stark terms: "Anyone living, working, serving or studying overseas understands that the US is much more respected now in 2012 than in 2008. Obama will win."

But being surrounded by Obama's international fans doesn't necessarily turn Americans toward the Democratic Party or, for that matter, prompt them to take part in elections at all. Despite what Dzieduszycka-Suinat describes as this administration's "commitment to making voting from abroad easier" for expats and troops, she expects only about one million voters to send in absentee ballots. She blames this on voters' lack of desire to go through the relatively simple process created by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which she says is more intimidating to some than it should be, but still "certainly easier than voting in Florida." But despite Dzieduszycka-Suinat's assertion, some overseas Americans have already reported having difficulty voting.

This lack of enthusiasm for voting among expats is mirrored by the dearth of donations from abroad. According to an analysis of FEC Filings undertaken by the Center for Responsive Politics, the two presidential candidates had only received some $1.1 million in donations from expats as of August. Obama took in 70 percent of that total, and Romney's donations came predominantly from the U.K. and Hong Kong, two international banking centers.

If these numbers illustrate a Romney enthusiasm gap, that gap is also evident among overseas military personel, who gave far more to Obama's campaign than to Romney's. Those donations somewhat undercut the notion that military voters lean toward the Republican candidate.

But leaping to the conclusion that the experience of life abroad somehow makes voters more liberal doesn't factor in a crucial fact: the traveling community is extremely self-selecting.

The states that boast the highest percentage of passport holders are Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, California and Alaska, all of them solidly blue except the chilly, non-contiguous one. A map of America by passport holder percentage, it turns out, looks a great deal like the electoral map, with Texas and Arizona being major and somewhat obvious exceptions.

The Atlantic's Richard Florida, in parsing passport data, found that it correlated with knowledge-based employment, education and income. Travelers are, in short, representative of a predictable slice of America, a fact that is obviously a double-edged sword for Obama during an election: If expats are the tiebreaker, he'll likely win, but if those expats were at home, he wouldn't need a tiebreaker.

This cultural schism is also clearly evident in expat culture.

"If you look at 'retail' politics -- phone banking, canvassing, voter registration drives, rallies, etc. -- I think you'll find that Democrats Abroad are much more enthusiastic and organized than our Republican friends," said Robert Carolina, a UK-based lawyer who works with Democrats Abroad, the official arm of the Democratic Party in the United Kingdom. "Anecdotal evidence from our campaign activities suggests that President Obama enjoys a warm base of support among our fellow Americans here."

In foreign cities, it's not uncommon for Democratic clubs to be popular cultural centers for young expats and NGO workers eager to network and meet local other non-locals. Republican clubs can be harder to find.

According to Cynthia Dillon, Republicans Abroad -- which, unlike its Democratic counterpart, is not an official part of the Republican Party -- is hoping that its economic message, coupled with anger over the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires foreign banks to report American account holders to the IRS, will change expats' minds about the president.

"It is my opinion that partially because of FATCA and the dire economic situation in the US with repercussions everywhere... Americans abroad will have voted for the Romney-Ryan ticket that promises to help rebuild the economy at home," said Dillon, who joins Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus in suspecting that some of Obama's donations from abroad are coming from foreign nationals.

Whether or not Republican expats become the mouse that roared -- as they did in 2000 when Al Gore would have taken Florida if not for 2,490 overseas ballots counted after Election Day -- remains unclear and depends on the swing states in play. In the unlikely event the election comes down to Florida, the state's registered voters in Israel could turn the election, but if the voting comes down states like Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, Obama would likely have the edge.

What is absolutely certain is that this overlooked group won't be so overlooked again if their votes sway the election. If that should happen, this could well be the last presidential race before American political ads begin running during the halftime of Real Madrid games.



If The World Could Vote