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Does Military Service Help Candidates?

- November 18, 2008

I interrupt this discussion of bagels to bring you a guest post from political scientist Jeremy Teigen:

bq. On the Monday before Election Day, Timothy Noah at Slate asked “Why don’t war heroes win?” He looked at the past fifty years of head-to-head presidential match-ups and noted that John McCain’s then-likely loss put him in the company of George McGovern, Bob Dole, and John Kerry. Noah quotes David Greenberg, who attributes these losses to the “tinny ring” of “military values like duty and sacrifice” in contemporary society.

bq. While other factors drive presidential outcomes more reliably than military biography, “tinny ring” or no, military service can occasionally help a candidate at the margins. In a recent paper in an edited volume, Inside Defense, I examined contested House races from 2000-2006 to see if candidates’ previous military service helped them garner a higher share of the vote. I did not distinguish when and in what capacity candidates served, so this analysis is not a direct test of “war hero” hypothesis. Nevertheless, it is instructive. The graph below shows the effect of being a Democratic veteran or a Republican veteran on vote share, controlling for presidential vote share in the district, gender, incumbency, campaign spending, and other relevant factors. The vertical lines are 95% confidence intervals.


bq. In general, veteran status has small effects that are not statistically distinguishable from 0. Democratic vets did better than their nonveteran peers in 2002, but did no better in 2006. That election was the year that Joe Sestak, Tammy Duckworth, and others constituted the “Fighting Dems,” a year when you would expect Democratic vets to do well, but instead Republican veterans were helped by a martial past. While the Fighting Dems may have helped the Democratic tide in 2006 by helping Democrats credibly criticize the Bush administration’s conduct of OIF (and OEF), Democratic veterans actually did a little bit worse than Democrats without a service record. This result may have occurred because Democrats were overzealous in their attempts to attract veterans as candidates, leading them to select veterans over higher quality challengers (14% of Democratic challengers were vets in 2002, compared to 28% in 2006). Republican vets running that year performed a little better than nonveteran Republican candidates, as they had been doing in the previous three elections, but the advantage just slipped above statistical significance. Overall, the effect of veteran status is very small.

bq. Nevertheless, this does not seem to deter veterans from running for office and promoting their service during their campaign. Despite the allegedly “tinny ring” of military values, some candidates make their military service the key element of their campaign narrative (e.g., Craig Williams). To me, this behavior and the continued emergence of veteran candidacies says that our candidate selection mechanisms still value military service even if the general election yield is inconstant and small.

bq. 2008 results to come soon…