Warrior candidates: Do voters value combat experience in postwar elections?

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 950965
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211040524
Warrior candidates: Do voters value
combat experience in postwar elections?
Josip Glaurdi´
and Christophe Lesschaeve
Electoral competition in postwar societies is often dominated by war veterans. The question whether voters actually
reward candidatesrecords of war service, however, remains open. We answer it using a unique dataset with detailed
information on the records of combat service of nearly four thousand candidates in two cycles of parliamentary elections
held under proportional representation rules with preferential voting in Croatia. Our analysis shows war veterans
electoral performanceto be conditional on the voterscommunitiesexposureto war violence: combat veterans receive a
sizeable electoralbonus in areas whose populations were moreexposed to war violence, but are penalized inareas whose
populations avoideddestruction. This divergence is particularlypronounced for candidates of nationalist rightwingparties,
demonstratingthe importance of the interaction betweenlived war experiences and politicalideology in postwar societies.
postwar elections, voter choice, war veterans, preferential voting, Croatia
Never was so much owed by so many to so few.
Winston Churchill, 1940
Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as
pawns in foreign policy.
Henry Kissinger, 1974
Winston Churchills famous words captured the pre-
vailing sentiment of gratitude of the British public to the
Royal Air Force pilots who were f‌ighting with extraor-
dinary courage against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of
Britain. Kissinger, on the other hand, allegedly coined his
maxim to annoy his rival, the White House Chief of Staff
General Alexander Haig, in the last days of the Vietnam
War and the Nixon Presidency.These two quotes were not
only the products of two very different men speaking in
two very different historical contexts surrounding two
very different wars. They also captured two common
stereotypes of men and women who served in combat: one
of valor, patriotism, and sacrif‌ice, and the other of
mindless service as little more than cannon fodder. How
do these stereotypes translate to the world of electoral
politics once the violence ends? Do war veterans who
choose to run for off‌ice capitalize on presumably positive
popular sentiment among voters, or are they penalized at
least among some voters for their records of service? As
examples ranging from Weimar Germany (Ziemann 2012)
through post-World War II United States (Teigen 2018), to
contemporary Kosovo (Capussela 2015) demonstrate, war
veterans have outsized political inf‌luence in postwar
societies. But do voters actually value war veteran poli-
ticiansrecords of service in combat?
The short answer to that question is that we do not
know. The evidence we have from the United States,
where the relationship between political candidates
records of combat service and their electoral fortunes
has arguably been researched the most, is at best mixed
and highly dependent on the wars in question. Both
World War II heroes and Vietnam Wardraft d odgers have
been elected to the Presidency. Tangible evidence on this
issue from post-conf‌lict societies whose populations ex-
perienced violence f‌irsthand is even slimmer, arguably
Institute of Political Science, University of Luxembourg, Esch-sur-
Alzette, Luxembourg
Corresponding Author:
Josip Glaurdi´
c, Institute of Political Science, University of Luxembourg, 2,
avenue de lUniversit´
e, Esch-sur-Alzette L-4365, Luxembourg.
Email: josip.glaurdic@uni.lu
non-existent. Obviously, collecting reliable electoral data
in post-conf‌lict societies, particularly related to candi-
dateswar records, can be exceptionally diff‌icult. Nev-
ertheless, the inability of the literature to fully account for
the drivers of voter choice in post-conf‌lict societies
especially drivers related to the recent war past, which
may be precluding the politics in these societies from
moving forwardhas been regrettable.
We provide answers to these questions using a unique
dataset on nearly four thousand candidates in the 2015 and
2016 parliamentary elections in Croatia, organized under
proportional representation rules with preferential voting.
Our dataset includes information on the length of can-
didatescombat service in Croatias armed and police
forces during the countrys 19911995 War of Indepen-
dence. This information was publicly available (and hotly
debated) in a dedicated online registry of war veterans at
the time of the two electoral campaigns, providing us with
a unique test of how candidateswar pasts are related to
their electoral fortunes. We pair our candidate-level data
with a string of variables on the level of Croatias556
relatively small municipalities, including information on
the local populations exposureto war violence. The results
of our analysis areclear. Croatian voters, eventwo decades
after the war,generally reward veterans at the ballotbox for
their combat service. Voters do that, however, conditional
on their own communitiesexposure to war violence. In
areas whose populations were more exposed to war vio-
lence, combat veterans receive a sizeable electoral bonus.
In areas whose populations avoided destruction, however,
combat veterans are actually penalized. This divergence is
particularly pronounced for candidates and voters of na-
tionalist rightwing parties that were decisively shaped by
the 19911995 war, demonstrating the importance of the
interaction between lived war experiences and political
ideology in postwar societies. Although its War of Inde-
pendence remains politically salientto this day, we believe
Croatia actuallypresents a particularly diff‌icultcase for our
analysis due to the temporal distance of the war from the
two electoral campaigns, the decisive nature of the wars
resolution in Croatiasvictory,andthecountrysmove
toward Europeanintegration. This suggests thatthe general
thrust of our f‌indings, which show how war experiences
affect the natureof postwar political competition,should be
portable to other postwar settings, though obviously more
research in othercontexts is needed to test our propositions.
Combat veterans as electoral candidates:
Valence, experiential closeness,
and ideology
Research on the relationship between politiciansmilitary
or war experience and their electoral fortunes has been
dominated by contributions focused on the US context.
Ever since the 1948 proposition by
that military heroes
had much higher chances of being elected to the presi-
dency, the value of veteran status has been virtually taken
for granted by the observers of US elections and the
establishments of the two parties (Karsten 2013). The
actual record of veteran candidates in electoral contests,
however, has been rather mixed. Somit and Tanenhaus
(1957) found veterans substantially overrepresented
among both Republican and Democrat candidates in
congressional elections of the early 1950s, but faring no
better or worse than their non-veteran counterparts at the
ballot box. Looking at congressional elections f‌ive de-
cades later, Teigen (2008) found veteran experience
bringing a slight electoral advantage only to Republican
nominees. Despite strong survey evidence of voters
positive ratings of military leaders on their integrity,
knowledge, abilities, and leadership in comparison to
other traditional pools of political candidates (McDermott
and Panagopoulos 2015), more recent experimental re-
search has found that there was no across-the-board
benef‌it for veteran candidates among American voters.
Veterans seem to be considered more competent on de-
fense and security issues (Teigen 2013), as well as more
hawkish, but this translates only to an adjustment in the
voter preference function concerning veteran Democrat
candidates among some segments of the electorate
(McDermott and Panagopoulos 2015). In other words,
American voters do hold some stereotypical views of
veteran candidates and use their military experience as a
heuristic for policy and trait views. Nevertheless, it is
unclear whether this translates into tangible electoral
benef‌its for veteran candidates.
More critical than this ambiguity regarding American
votersviews of politicians with records of military ser-
vice, however, is the fact that we know very little about
votersviews of the candidateswar pasts in societies with
experiences of conf‌lict on their own soil. A number of
aggregate-level f‌indings from post-conf‌lict polities
demonstrates that electoral competition can be decisively
determined by the patterns of violence and the pop-
ulations allegiances in the ended conf‌lict (e.g., Costalli
and Ruggeri 2019;Hadzic, Carlson, and Tavits 2020). We
do not know, however, whether voters in post-conf‌lict
societies actually value individual candidatesrecords of
military service. Clearly, this has been the case due to a
number of practical obstacles in conducting electoral
research in post-conf‌lict contexts. Post-conf‌lict societies
often have far from perfect democratic institutions and
electoral competitions, not to mention that reliable sys-
tematic data on politicianswar pasts is extremely hard to
come by for researchers. Notwithstanding these evident
obstacles, however, the limitations of the literature in
understanding the drivers of war-related voter choice in
c and Lesschaeve 951

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