War, Public Opinion, and Leader Credibility

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-5464-3955
White, Laura, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Sechser, Todd, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia

Are all leaders equally able to rally public support for a military intervention? It seems intuitive that the answer is no; however, the literature on war and public opinion focuses primarily on factors like a conflict’s purpose, likely success, and partisan divisiveness to explain variations in public support. Leaders possess significant influence over the framing of public debate and are incentivized to sell proposed interventions as both important to the nation and as a feasible undertaking likely to yield success. These efforts at persuasion are not always successful, however. Variation across interventions in levels of support both in the public as a whole and within partisan groups suggests that some leaders may be more or less able to sell a military intervention or are more or less trusted to oversee it. I argue that leaders vary in their individual credibility cultivated with the public, or with different sectors of the public, and this credibility influences their ability to rally support for a conflict. In this dissertation, I provide evidence for the relationship between perceived credibility and individual support for conflict initiation, drawing on public opinion polling collected during conflicts spanning the administrations of five US presidents. I then discuss how credibility not only influences support for war, but shapes beliefs about how a conflict will unfold, focusing on expectations surrounding a conflict’s likely success, casualties, and length. Finally, using a mix of existing survey data and an original survey experiment, I explore how the determinants of credibility can vary based on individual-level factors like partisanship and personality.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Leaders, Public opinion
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