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The War Referendum: Public Optimism and Domestic Support for War

This paper relates to my broader book project, Wars for the People: Leaders, Audiences, and the Use of Force. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2016 APSA Annual Meeting. Copy available upon request.

Brandon Merrell

Theories of conflict escalation often assume that democratic voters oppose aggressive military policies unless influenced by elite cues. In contrast, this paper documents the existence and durability of military optimism among domestic audiences. Using a survey experiment of American citizens, I show that voters sometimes support military action before they observe leader behavior. Moreover, respondents' preference for military retaliation is relatively durable: whereas existing research suggests that voters 'rally' around leaders by indiscriminately endorsing government policy during crises, I find that citizens are less willing to support officials who restrain from using military force than leaders who adopt aggressive tactics. I provide further support for the theory with data from Israeli military responses to Palestinian rocket and mortar strikes and show that Israeli leaders are more likely to retaliate quickly when constituents oppose settlement and elections are near. Collectively, the results suggest that leaders can more easily shield themselves from domestic criticism by escalating crises than by engaging in military restraint.