Vanderbilt study finds Iraq war hurt Republican, not Democratic, House members

This fall Democratic campaign strategists might want to target traditionally Republican congressional districts with heavy casualties in Iraq, according to research by two Vanderbilt University political scientists.

While many political pundits have attributed the unpopularity of the Iraq war to a congressional landslide for the Democrats in 2006, a study co-authored by professors Christian Grose and Bruce Oppenheimer finds that Republican incumbents were more likely to lose in districts with heavy "hometown" losses in Iraq.

To a somewhat lesser extent, voters also tended to punish GOP lawmakers who voted to authorize the Iraq war. Conversely, voters did not do the same with the incumbent Democratic representatives.

The average number of war deaths in Republican districts was 2.4. GOP districts with a higher than average number of war deaths were frequently in the Midwest and West. Overall, the study found that in the Republican-controlled districts, for every two deaths from the Iraq war, there was a 1 percent increase in the Democratic partisan swing.

The Democratic partisan swing is the change in the percentage of the Democratic two-party vote between 2004 and 2006. In addition, the professors said that the findings on the effect of war deaths are independent of the effect of incumbency, scandal, candidate quality and campaign spending on voting.

Nationally, Democrats captured an estimated 54 percent of the two-party vote for the congressional candidates in 2006, an increase of 5.4 percent from 2004.

"If that 5.4 percent partisan swing had been universal across all districts, the Democrats would have struggled to regain control of the House of Representatives," said Oppenheimer, a professor of political science. "We found that the partisan swing was larger in Republican districts where there were a higher number of deaths from the Iraq war."

One example of the professors’ findings was in New Mexico, where Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican, ran for re-election in a district that leans Democratic. There were no war deaths in 2006 in Wilson’s district. She managed to win but edged out her opponent by fewer than 1,000 votes. In 2004 she had captured 54 percent of the vote. This meant that her partisan swing was equal to 4 percent in favor of the Democratic candidate, similar to the national trend.

Another example is the 8th District in North Carolina, where Republican incumbent Robin Hayes beat Democrat Larry Kissell by just 330 votes. There were five war deaths in that district in 2006, well above the average number per district. "The closeness of the race was a huge surprise at the time," Grose said. "No one really thought Hayes was in serious trouble until Election Day, and now Kissell is hoping to win in their rematch."

Oppenheimer noted that compared to previous U.S. conflicts, the number of war deaths per district is actually quite low. "These results suggest that American voters have become extremely sensitive to a relatively small number of soldier deaths per district," he said. Oppenheimer said that voters are willing to punish the party in power and also punish individual lawmakers within the party in power based on the number of "hometown" war deaths and the lawmakers’ past voting record related to the war.

Grose said that voters who are against the war might be less likely to vote for Sen. McCain for president. "We found that any Republican member of Congress who voted for the war received fewer votes than those who weren’t in Congress at the time of the vote," Grose said. "However, economic issues might play a larger role in voters’ behavior at the ballot box than the Iraq war this year. We’ll just have to wait and see."

The study, titled "The Iraq War, Partisanship and Candidate Attributes: Explaining Variation in Partisan Swing in the 2006 U.S. House Elections," has been published in Legislative Studies Quarterly.

Media Contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

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