Iraq Casualties and GOP Vote Share: A Review of Some Literature

For reasons involving real research, I need to see whether and how much the Iraq war affected the Bush administration’s electoral record. I’m reviewing some of the literature here, partly as a public accountability mechanism, partly as a personal note, and partly to see if anyone else has anything to add.

The theoretical stakes for me here are not, quite, in the realm of voter behavior. Rather, I’m interested in adjudicating whether claims that voters punish incumbents for mishandling foreign policy are well-founded. In particular, what are we to make of the fact that the internationally popular, swift, and decisive 1991 Iraq War was followed by George H.W. Bush’s defeat, while the internationally unpopular, grinding, and essentially doomed 2003 Iraq War was followed by George W. Bush’s victory? Does this mean that Iraq “didn’t matter” for 2004/2006/2008? Such a finding would contrast with the claim that the Iraq war was at the core of Republicans’ electoral reversals in 2006 and 2008.

Although this lit review meandered a bit from a tight focus on the elections, the general findings seem defensible:

  • it’s really hard to establish direct causality between the war and election outcomes–if only we could run experiments!
  • there seem to be clear evidence that war casualties affected evaluations of the president and legislators
  • these effects were mostly driven by local news coverage and local elections (whether that ‘local’ is ‘state’ or ‘county’ remains to be seen)
  • the absolute biggest magnitudes of these effects are distressingly small–enough to shift a presidential election but not to wildly reject a challenger or incumbent on the basis of competence
  • approval for the war and vote returns for presidents seem to track perceptions of success and support for the decision to begin the war as well as costs
  • inference in the first term is compounded by rally effects from 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war
  • to the extent that Republicans suffered because of the war (a finding that seems reasonable), such electoral retribution was largely a result of local casualties  and relatively modest in scope.

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