To change or not to change horses: the World War II elections.

Author:Norpoth, Helmut
Position:Report
 
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It is not best to swap horses when crossing streams.

--Abraham Lincoln (New York Times 1864)

Seeing it through in Vietnam cost me 20 points in the polls.

--Lyndon Johnson, 1968 (Mueller 1973, 196)

"Wartime election" sounds like an oxymoron. Many countries do not give voters the opportunity to vote under wartime conditions. Even an established democracy like Britain suspended elections during both world wars. Wartime conditions impose unique constraints on the general public, just like on the economy, that are absent in peacetime. So when elections are being held in wartime, as has been the case in the United States throughout its history, voters may be expected to follow a different calculus than in peacetime. As Lincoln's admonition suggests, voters would not be wise to change leaders in the middle of a war. Going to war is expected to generate a "rally 'round the flag" effect. Faced with an external enemy, the adversaries of domestic politics suspend their disputes and close ranks behind the country's leader, designated by the U.S. Constitution as commander in chief of the armed forces. It would seem unpatriotic for citizens safely out of harm's way not to do so.

Yet in recent years, politics has not stopped at the water's edge. The party that got the United States into war has not fared especially well at the polls. To wit, Republicans lost the White House in 2008, as well as the Congress two years earlier, in large part because of voter discontent with the war in Iraq. A generation or so earlier, Lyndon Johnson saw his popularity decline and his party lose the White House in the 1968 election amidst widespread opposition to the war in Vietnam. To observers with even longer memory, this recalled the fate of Harry Truman during the Korean War and the Democrats' loss of the White House in the 1952 election. Is the folk wisdom cited by Abraham Lincoln mistaken about wartime voting?

This article examines the first wartime elections in the age of survey research. The data come from an October 1940 Gallup poll and a 1944 election study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). Technically, of course, the United States was not at war in 1940, but war in Europe, as well as Asia, loomed large as an issue in American politics then. Both of those surveys have languished in undeserved obscurity. Note that they picked Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) as the winner in the respective elections with uncanny accuracy, avoiding the pitfalls of the notorious 1948 election. Each of these surveys offered respondents a counterfactual choice touching on the wartime aspect of those elections: What if there was no war, whom would you vote for (have voted for)? The surveys also queried respondents about war-related policies and FDR's handling of the war. To complement the survey evidence, a time series analysis of the vote in presidential elections is conducted to determine how the White House party fares in wartime elections throughout American history, and especially during World War II.

Political Behavior in Wartime

Folk wisdom aside, the key rationale for voter reluctance to change leaders in wartime is the "rally 'round the flag" phenomenon (Mueller 1973). Military interventions form the top tier of rally events, defined by Mueller as an event that "(1) is international and (2) involves the United States and particularly the president directly; and it must be (3) specific, dramatic, and sharply focused" (1973, 209). (1) A wealth of studies has probed the surge in leader approval in the wake of rally events (Callaghan and Virtanen 1993; Edwards and Swenson 1997; Kernell 1978; Lai and Reiter 2005; MacKuen 1983; Nickelsburg and Norpoth 2000; Ostrom and Simon 1985). Not all rally events, to be sure, pack an equal punch (Lian and Oneal 1993). It takes front-page coverage in the New York Times for an event to generate substantial gains in presidential approval (Oneal and Bryan 1995). The expectation of such a gain may tempt leaders to engage in military actions (Ostrom and Job 1986) or "saber rattling" (Wood 2009). Whatever the initial success of attempts to exploit the rally effect may be, it is in the nature of rally-induced boosts of public support that they quickly evaporate. Their staying power is not expected to be strong enough to secure victory in the next election.

One rally that lingered long enough to help the commander in chief win reelection was the one sparked by the 9/11 attacks (Hetherington and Nelson and 2003; Norpoth and Sidman 2007). Another occurred in British politics as a result of the Falklands War of 1982. The rally 'round Prime Minister Thatcher remained strong enough to assure a Conservative victory in the general election of 1983 (Norpoth 1992). What set these two rallies apart is that they arose in response to an attack on the home country or a territorial possession abroad. In both cases, but especially after 9/11 in the United States, the general public rallied instantly, even before any military operation had been launched. Such a rally may have great staying power, enough to carry through to the next election. We would expect the same effect for U.S. entry into World War II sparked, as it was, by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

While the rally effect boosts public morale in wartime, the human toll exacted by war is said to sap it. The latter reaction is one of the causal mechanisms of the democratic-peace theory (Bueno de Mesquita, and Siverson 1995; Ray 1995). During the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the cumulative count of U.S. casualties closely tracks popular opinion about these wars (Mueller 1973, 61). As the toll climbed, support for each of those wars fell, and so did the electoral prospects of the respective commanders in chief and their parties (Kernell 1978; Ostrom and Simon 1985). (2) Even in World War II American casualties may have taken a toll on presidential approval (Baum and Kernell 2001; Kriner 2006). Was the war perhaps less of a winning ticket for FDR than is widely believed?

Given the remoteness of foreign affairs for most citizens, some scholars depict the mass public as dependent on elite cues for opinions in this domain (Berinsky 2007; Brody 1991; Holsti 2004; Zaller 1992). When the opinion leaders of the country, including both major parties in Congress, are united in their support of military action abroad, the general public will accept that decision and see no reason to change horses. But when Congress is divided and the media give ample voice to dissent over a war, ordinary Americans will follow suit and feel no reluctance to change leaders in wartime. Aside from political leaders, the tenor of media coverage can determine whether the general public supports the president at moments of international crisis (Groeling and Baum 2008). The intensity of news coverage alone, regardless of tenor, may garner public support for war (Althaus and Coe 2011). By focusing on the war at the expense of other concerns, the media would "prime" Americans to be patriotic in their views of the war. "Priming" effects have been demonstrated to affect a variety of political attitudes as well as voting (Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Kam and Ramos 2008; Krosnik and Kinder 1990; Mendelberg 2001).

Others, however, credit the general public for judging the merits of military interventions, based on the objective of the mission (Eichenberg 2005; Jentleson 1992). This would seem an easy call when military action is taken in response to an undeniable attack on one's own country, as happened in Pearl Harbor 1941, and is sanctioned by a practically unanimous declaration of war. Aside from the righteousness of the cause, the prospect of success is an important ingredient of war sentiment. Expectation of victory has proved to be a powerful determinant of public support for military operations (Eichenberg 2005; Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler 2009; Larson 1996). Though it is often not easy to judge the prospect of victory, shaped by psychological factors and media coverage as much as by material gains (Johnson and Tierney 2006), this may not have proved a difficult task for the American public in World War II. News coverage of the war was tightly censured. The war was the only news and little, if any, bad news reached the American public back home. So how did Americans make up their minds in the World War II elections? What surveys are available to shed light on this question, and how were they conducted?

Opinion Surveys in the 1940s

To begin with, opinion surveys in the late 1930s and early 1940s were conducted by means of "quota-controlled sampling" (Berinsky 2006). While the Gallup Organizations refers to it as "modified probability" sampling, it does depart from the strict standards of probability sampling. Respondents for a poll were selected through "a combination of ... a purposive design for the selection of cities, towns, and rural areas, and the quota method for the selection of individuals within such selected areas" (Roper Center n.d., 2). Within the sample areas, respondents were chosen so as to meet certain quotas defined by age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Within these guidelines, the choice of a particular respondent was up to the interviewer, who was allowed to pick them in their homes or on the street. There was no requirement for the interviewer to make these selections by any random procedure.

What is more, the Gallup sample design was set to represent the South and Non-South according to the votes cast in presidential elections, not the voting-age population. Hence, southerners and blacks are underrepresented in these polls. While this may skew the distribution of opinions of the American public, it would seem to do little harm if vote choice is the focus of inquiry. Both the 1940 and 1944 surveys used in this research pick the winner of the respective elections, deviating by less than two percentage points from the actual results. (3) The inquiry into the failure...

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