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The War Referendum

Brandon Merrell

Theories of conflict escalation often assume that democratic voters are relatively dovish and will oppose aggressive military policies unless influenced by elite cues. In contrast, this paper documents the existence and durability of hawkish foreign policy preferences among the American public. 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. Similarly, whereas media criticism of soft-line and moderate strategies reduces public support for leaders who engage in such behavior, leaders who face criticism for deploying troops actually enjoy higher levels of public support than those who are not criticized. Collectively, the results suggest that leaders can more easily shield themselves from domestic criticism by escalating crises than by engaging in military restraint. I provide historical evidence that hawkish public opinion has influenced leader decision-making by examining John F. Kennedy's behavior during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lyndon Johnson's decision to expand American military operations in Vietnam, and Jimmy Carter's decision to attempt a rescue mission for American hostages in Iran.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2016 APSA Annual Meeting. Copy available upon request.