Donald Trump

Did 15 Years of War Win the Presidency for Donald Trump?

Or is partisanship such a strong indicator of voter choice that the specifics of a candidate's stances might not matter?


Did the promise of peace deliver the nuclear button to Donald Trump? A recent study by Douglas L. Kriner, a political scientist at Boston University, and Francis X. Shen, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, argues that Trump's victory last November can be directly attributed to "the casualty divide"—their term for the division "between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not."

torbakhopper via / CC BY-ND

Specifically, they think the evidence shows

a significant and meaningful relationship between a community's rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump's victory—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House.

Exposure to the costs of war is not equal across America, as Kriner and Shen note: "seven states have suffered casualty rates of thirty or more deaths per million residents. By contrast, four states have suffered casualty rates of fifteen or fewer deaths per million. As a result, Americans living in these states have had different exposure to the war's human costs through the experiences of their friends and neighbors and local media coverage."

The varying effects get more pronounced on the county level: "more than a quarter of counties had experienced a casualty rate more than 3.5 times greater [than the national average], and 10% of counties had suffered casualty rates of more than 7 deaths per 100,000 residents. Voters in such communities increasingly abandoned Republican candidates in a series of elections in the 2000s."

The authors believe they have found a robust association between a state's casualty rates and Trump's excess votes over Mitt Romney's four years earlier. Had Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin all had casualties rates equal to the lower ones in nearby New York, they conclude, then Trump's narrow victory margin in those states would have disappeared and Hillary Clinton would be president. Doing the same analysis on the more granular county level leads to even stronger-seeming support for their thesis. (They see a similar historical pattern going back even further: "in the Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, constituencies that have suffered the highest casualty rates have proven most likely to punish the ruling party at the polls.")

Kriner and Shen controlled for some obvious possible confounding variables, including income and educational level, ethnic mix, rural/urban population balance, and percentage of veterans. "Even after including all of these demographic control variables," they write, "the relationship between a county's casualty rate and Trump's electoral performance remains positive and statistically significant."

Before you rush to assume that correlation indicates causation, there's a mystery you have to consider: What exactly did voters know (or think they knew) about Trump's foreign policy, and how important was that to them? In Michigan, for example, only 13 percent of voters in a CNN exit poll rated foreign policy as their most important topic, and only 34 percent of those privileging foreign policy went for Trump. In Pennsylvania those numbers were a very similar 12 percent and 31 percent; in Wisconsin, they were 11 and 38. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that military casualty families were overrepresented in those small percentages who both privileged foreign policy and voted for Trump, but the authors don't know this for sure.

As for what voters believed about his foreign policy: Many of a non-interventionist bent were excited about those portions of Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric that suggested he had strong doubts about the wisdom of some past U.S. wars, such as the one in Iraq, and might be less inclined to get us into new ones. Writing here at Reason, Matt Welch, Sheldon Richman, and I had doubts about Trump's peacenik bonafides. In any case, voter ignorance of a politician's stated stances is rampant, and it's an open question what any given voter thought Trump would do in office. Kriner and Shen admit that Trump's rhetorical record on peace has been decidedly mixed; in their words, he "promised a foreign policy that would be both simultaneously more muscular and more restrained."

Exactly why Trump won over Clinton may be highly overdetermined. In other words, attributing it directly to any one cause may be saying too much. See, for example, very similar correlative analysis from Brian Flaxman, an economics Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder, who looks at likely former Obama votes that went for Trump and concluded that Obama/Trump support seems highly correlated to worse poverty and unemployment rates. So it's difficult for a noninterventionist to enthusiastically embrace the Kriner/Shen study's conclusion that "If Trump wants to maintain his connection to this part of his base, his foreign policy would do well to be highly sensitive to American combat casualties," as sweet as it is to believe that.

On a deeper level, an interesting study forthcoming in the American Political Science Review casts some cynical shadows for all attempts to connect an election's outcome with specifics about what a candidate says about his policies, at least to the extent that those policy communication attempts come via the standard efforts of the political campaign itself.

The paper was written by Joshua L. Kalla, a grad student in political science at Berkeley, and David E. Broockman, who teaches political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business. They conclude that "the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans' candidates choices in general elections is zero."

What exactly do they mean by this, which seems to imply that all paid attempts at messaging about a politicians' stances to potential voters is a big waste of time? The question they strive to answer is: "How susceptible are American voters' choices in general elections to influence from political elites in the form of campaign contact and advertising?" (This question has some relevance to how much panic, moral or otherwise, Americans should have about Russian attempts to influence the election via Facebook ads—though they consider their conclusions less certain when it comes to the online world.)

After analyzing the results from 49 field experiments, Broockman and Kalla conclude:

• The best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising—such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing—on Americans' candidate choices in general elections is zero. Our best guess for online and television advertising is also zero, but there is less evidence on these modes.

• When campaigns contact voters long before election day and measure effects immediately, campaigns often appear to persuade voters. However, this early persuasion decays before election day and the very same treatments usually cease working close to election day. This suggests political scientists and practitioners should consider whether an experiment was run close to an election when attempting to generalize its findings.

• Campaigns can sometimes identify pockets of persuadable voters, but even this only appears possible in some elections and when campaigns conduct within-cycle field experiments to identify responsive subgroups.

The authors also conducted their own studies in 2015 and 2016, "in partnership with a national door-to-door canvassing operation." Here again they tended to find no impact at all on how people voted. (One experiment did show a small but statistically significant possibility that canvassing in Ohio helped Trump, though they "urge caution when interpreting these results" because of a greater chance of bias under the specific circumstances where that effect was found.)

"Our findings also offer an important caveat to the widespread notion that political elites can easily manipulate citizens' political choices," the authors conclude. "The circumstances in which citizens' political choices appear manipulable appear to be exceedingly rare in the elections that matter most."

"Our evidence is silent on several questions," they note. "It does not speak to the effects of candidates' qualities, positions, or overall campaign 'message.'" But at the very least, this paper sparks a strong suspicion that the professional geniuses who sell themselves as experts in campaign messaging and methods are selling a phantasm to protect their phoney-baloney jobs.

If traditional campaigning doesn't sway voters' choices, what does? In an interview with The Atlantic, Kalla said: "The first order of understanding an election and how people vote is partisan identity. Most people vote based on whether there's a D or an R next to their name."

While the Kalla/Broockman study makes it seem that convincing voters what a candidate thinks or believes via the standard methods of professional campaigns is worthless, their stress on the importance of mere partisan identification raises important considerations relevant to the "Trump won because of foreign policy" study.

That study was mostly trying to figure out why those who had voted for one party in 2012 voted for another in 2016. That seems, in the light of this Kalla/Broockman study, to be the most important place to examine the whys of Trump's victory.

But the "Trump won because of military casualties" argument lacks detailed evidence on what is apparently the most important question when it comes to explaining voter choice: Where and how do voter form their opinions about which party is "theirs"? Which elements of that are vital, and which are ancillary? This seems especially significant as Trump shifts the GOP from the Romney-era consensus in important ways, which may or may not as time goes by include foreign policy.

In any case, whatever voters may think about Trump's views on foreign policy or any other subject, there is strong reason to believe it had nothing to do with paid deliberate efforts on the part of the Trump campaign.

NEXT: Trump Campaign Foreign Policy Adviser's Guilty Plea Could Be More Important Than Manafort's Indictment

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  1. Or is partisanship such a strong indicator of voter choice that the specifics of a candidate’s stances might not matter?

    I’m leaning this way.

    1. If that were true, Mitt Romney would have won, or if he lost, Trump would have lost too.

      1. Romney was the lukewarm conservative, at least to conservatives. The progressives may have portrayed him as the scary fringe reactionary Hitlerite, but he was quite milquetoast, as things considered. He didn’t win because his base simply dozed off on election day.

        1. He didn’t win because a huge part of the electorate, who BTW are not generally Republicans, didn’t show up to the polls because they didn’t see how he was any different than Obama. They did show up for Trump. I agree with what you are saying, except that the people who made the difference for Trump were not part of the GOP base.

  2. Did 15 Years of War Win the Presidency for Donald Trump?
    Hillary being a complete scumbag certainly helped.

    1. I think you meant to say “scumbagette.”

  3. No. Yes.

  4. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

  5. I think 30+ years of telling anyone in the electorate who in any way objected to open borders and absolute free trade under any circumstances to go screw themselves as well as calling anyone who was even slightly to the right on the culture war a racist and a bigot is what got Trump elected. But hey, Reason sure it was war. Whatever gets you half wits through the night.

    1. Which is deeply ironic, because only the hardcore fringe of libertarianism actually argued for absolute open borders and free trade. The Democrats sure as fuck did not. Obama ended up deporting far more illegal immigrants than Bush ever dreamed of. NAFTA may have had “free trade” in its name, but it’s still the same old school managed trade that we’ve had for the past century and some odd decades.

      1. Obama ended up deporting far more illegal immigrants than Bush ever dreamed of.

        With the way they changed the counting of deportations, that was completely inevitable. I’m still not convinced that Obama deported more people, mainly because I haven’t seen any accounting that includes that difference.

      2. Obama didn’t deport more people. Obama changed the definition of deportation to include anyone turned away at the border. This allowed him to claim inflated numbers. If you definte deportation as removing someone who is here as opposed to just turning them away at the border, Obama’s deportation numbers dropped to vritually nil.

        And yes, both parties told the electorate to fuck off on trade. And both parties lied their asses off about immigration; claiming to be against it but in reality trying every way in the world to sell out and open the borders. They were totally for open borders. They just were not honest enough to admit it.

        1. Obama didn’t change the definition of “deportation”. Rather, there was a change in policy, beginning late in the Bush administration: rather than simply returning putting people apprehended at the border on a bus and returning them to Mexico (“returns” – colloquially “catch and release”), DHS began taking fingerprints and formally deporting such people (“removals”). Cost-effectiveness aside, this is a good policy because it discouraged people from trying more than one – trying to re-enter the country after a removal as more substantial consequences than a simple return.

          For the record, “deportation” hasn’t been an official legal term since 1996. And the Bush

  6. Just because campaigns and campaign advertising are a waste of time doesn’t mean that voters don’t have positions. It just means that the candidate who best reflects the voters preferences wins and no amount of campaign advertising and dragging people to the polls will change that. That is all this data means.

  7. Since the ‘no war’ candidates didn’t do very well, I’m not sure you could really make this claim. It’s more likely that the traditional Democratic base was simply not very impressed with what the Democrats had done for them since, ultimately, very little changed for the better in terms of the working class under Obama.

    That’s probably why a Democrat in sheep’s clothing won the Republican nomination, yo.

    1. Of all the stupid talking points about Trump, I think that he was a Democrat manchurian candidate might be the dumbest. Where exactly is this Democratic Party that wants to roll back the regulatory state, cut taxes and appoint conservatives to the bench? If Trump is a Democrat, then what is a Republican?

      Moreover, Trump recieved a higher percentage of Registered Republicans’ votes in the general election than either McCain or Romney and a lower percentage of registered Democrats than either of them. Pretty good trick for a Democrat.

      1. That’s rather the point, in that Trump isn’t a modern Democrat. He’s a Democrat from circa 1990, which makes sense for his age. We point at the Democrat party veering further and further to the left, and that trajectory is pretty clear, but to pretend that Democrat voters don’t also recognize that fact would be pretty dumb.

        If someone was a Democrat in the 90’s I can see some of the appeal in Trump.

      2. The fact that Trump is really a Republican ought to embarrass a GOP shill such as yourself.

        George Will at least has the decency to disown him.

        1. What embarasses me is that I live in a country where people as retarded unable to care for themselves as you are, are allowed to live in the street and shout on the internet instead of being institutionalized and getting the help you so desparately need.

  8. I don’t buy it. The casualty rate of this “war” has been extremely low. For US Troops that is. It’s been devastating for brown skinned people overseas, but Americans really haven’t been affected much by the “war”. During Vietnam everyone knew someone who was affected by the war. But I don’t know anyone who has been affected by our war against the Middle East. I only know one person who has even been in the military. Am I just an outlier?

    Granted, the poorer the state the greater the likelihood that military careers are the only careers available to youth, but the number of actual casualties and military service related disabilities has been exceedingly low (on our side, that is). I can’t just buy that a constant stream of coffins is what’s driving conservative voters.

    1. And time and again it has been shown that the middle class serve in the military predominantely not the poor. But, only poor people volunteer for the military is one of the most sacred sorts of lies douchebag journalists like to tell themselves.

      1. This goes way back to Civil War. Researchers looking at census records and city listings have not found a huge disparity between rich, middle class and poor serving in the Union Army. Frequently, lowly laborers got out of the draft by belonging to clubs and ethnic organizations that would put up the $300 fee to buy substitutes.

    2. A constant stream of coffins packed with heroin is enough to finance some serious vote swings…

    3. Did you really invoke “brown-skinned people”? What an imbecile you must be.

      In other news, when you invoke “conservative” voters, you had better be quite fucking clear about what it is that you think they are trying to conserve. I don’t see any evidence that you’ve got the tiniest iota of a clue about that.

  9. I guess Doherty is throwing his hat in the ring for which reason staffer gets the honor of writing the “Libertarian Case for Kamale Harris come 2020.

    1. “Libertarian Case for Kamale Harris”

      You mean the Fifth Column podcast guy? I like him! And as a dynamic young black Libertarian, he’d probably do really well in an election. But I think his last name is Foster, not Harris.

  10. In any case, whatever voters may think about Trump’s views on foreign policy or any other subject, there is strong reason to believe it had nothing to do with paid deliberate efforts on the part of the Trump campaign.

    Duh. It has everything to do with paid deliberate efforts on the part of Russians.

    1. That’s truly funny, as long as you don’t mean it.

  11. It makes abstract sense that those most negatively effected by the ruling party (families with deaths specifically linked with said party) vote against them.

    The discussion of the effectiveness of campaigning is interesting and I appreciate the report’s attempt at trying to parse all the information. Wasn’t there some superficial analysis that drew some correlation between money spent and election victory? I have no idea if that’s true or not (my guess is not), but the question of whether campaigning is actually worth it or just a waste of everyone’s time is a question that needs more discussion. I just wish some definitive report would finally be released so people would stop knocking on my damn door.


    33% approval rating for the Con Man.

    He doesn’t wear well. And he hasn’t fucked up really big yet.

    1. And he is still President and will remain so certainly until 2021 and likely until January 2025. Suck it retard. Why don’t you tell us more about how Hillary was so sure to win. Or how the Democrats were going to hold the Senate in 2014. Good times.

    2. The Con Man’s fat-ass bitch didn’t win, though. So what are you talking about?

  13. Americans have been conditioned to divide into camps.

    I would say, from the incessant and patronizing gush fest about the military before every sporting event, that we are not too concerned about endless war.

    The real study should be about how there is no difference between a democrat and a republican in DC. They are playing an act that dipshits still think matters.
    It works on dumbass eggheads like the people that did tis study.
    Nationalism and class warfare are the vestiges of failed politics/government. It’s how you get morons like tony and palin to argue with people that think trump is actually trying to shrink the government, end wars for nothing, or get us out of our insurmountable debt situation.

    1. The only Americans conditioned to divide into camps are all Democrasses.

  14. God’s Own Prohibitionists won because they copied the LP gun and energy planks, and disparaged “foreign entanglements.” The Dems lost because they copied econazi planks to block access to energy instead of copying the LP relegalization plank. Dems were smarter in 1932, when they copied the Liberal Party prohibition repeal plank and won the next five elections hands down.

  15. No Republican could be elected dog-zoner if voters understood the causal link between prohibitionist asset-forfeiture and economic collapse the way they did in 1932. The George Waffen Bush faith-based prohibitionist looter collapse did make it impossible for anyone stinking of Washington to win. The Obama Administration doubtless rekindled some of the racial collectivism that got George Wallace 14% of the vote in 1968 without even trying. I recall the day after the election a bookstore clerk seemed in really good spirits–and then I realized the kid was Obama-colored.

  16. Not even the slightest. It was the Democrats abandoning the blue collar working class in favor of the rich and immigrants.

    But as there’s where Reason agrees with Democrats, it clearly can’t be the reason. People never vote in their own economic interest, after all, only what serves their “betters”

  17. The conclusion proposed is that nothing matters as much as party affiliation and yet other research shows that fewer and fewer people are identifying with either major party. In any case the Republican party has fewer members than the Democratic Party. In most cases the votes amassed statewide show that in many cases the total votes cast for Republican candidates was the less than those cast for Democrats but thanks to gerrymandering they win a majority of the seats in state legislatures. All these different facts do not seem to justify claims that nothing matters as much as party affiliations. There is another question than hasn’t been answered – what convinces someone to put their faith in the Republican or Democratic Party and why do voters maintain their affiliation?

    1. It’s Democrasses who gerrymander.

    2. We should redraw districts so that democrats win more seats. And that is in no way gerrymandering.

  18. Brian…the American people hate Democrasses. With very good reason. Why can’t you comprehend that simple fact?

  19. I never believe any of this research. They can never prove causation versus correlation, their sampling usually isn’t remotely as random as they think, and of course the researchers themselves are flagrantly biased being political science academics and students.

  20. To answer the headline; no. 3/4ths of the people who voted for Trump (or Clinton) did so because he’s the candidate ‘their’ part put forth. And that’s it. My Team. Don’t change horses midstream. Etc.

  21. Drumpf won because the 25% or so of voters are suckers for lying salesman selling snake oil!
    Hillary lost because 50% or so of voters can see a lying salesman selling snake oil a mile away!

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