Serving to Run: Veterans and the March to Elected Office

Author: ORCID icon
Amoroso, Joseph, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Kirkland, Justin, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia
Lawless, Jennifer, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia
Freedman, Paul, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia
Volden, Craig, BA-Frank Batten School, University of Virginia

Military experience has long held political relevance. However, over the last 50 years, the share of veterans serving in public office has steadily declined. This trend and the simultaneous rise in polarization motivate efforts to recruit and elect more veteran candidates. Proponents argue that values and skills associated with military service are vital to improving government. Despite a historical tradition and these more recent appeals, few studies consider the effect of military experience on electoral behavior.

This dissertation follows the trajectory of veteran candidates in electoral politics: why they run, how they campaign, and how they govern. I consider the factors that motivate or deter veterans from emerging as candidates for elective office, the effect that their military experience has on voters, and the extent to which veteran elected officials differ when they are on the job. I argue that prior military experience influences the political behavior of veterans and knowledge of this background can be a meaningful cue for the electorate. The goal of this research is to provide a comprehensive empirical evaluation of how military experience influences electoral politics.

First, I explore political ambition among veterans (Chapter 2). I consider how norms and institutional arrangements associated with contemporary military service may reinforce or diminish political ambition. Drawing on data from two original survey studies comparing veterans with civilians, I find that veterans are highly interested in seeking elective office. In examining why this is the case, I find that veterans consider themselves particularly qualified to run and are susceptible to recruitment efforts. The results also indicate that politically ambitious veterans differ in terms of Basic Human Values (Schwartz 1992), such that these veterans prioritize self-enhancement over more selfless goals. In light of these findings, consider the implications for both political recruitment efforts and civil-military relations. Overall, this essay establishes veterans as another group of “eligible potential candidates,” previously omitted from research on candidate emergence.

Next, I turn to the campaign trail (Chapter 3). Once veterans decide to run, they often highlight their military experience, yet little is known about the political consequences of this signaling. I explore how evidence of a candidate’s military background influences perceptions of the candidate’s ideology. I expect voters perceive veteran candidates to be more conservative, which ultimately influences assessments of favorability. I evaluate this expectation relative to another powerful cue that steers ideological perceptions in the opposite direction: race. Drawing on Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) data from four U.S. House elections (2014-2020) and an original survey experiment embedded in the 2020 CCES, I find that voters tend to view veterans as more conservative and Black candidates as more liberal. Consequently, voters favor the candidate whose ideological stereotype coincides with their own political viewpoint. Black candidates enjoy an electoral advantage, especially among liberal voters, while veterans are supported by conservatives but punished by liberals. The findings from this study present military experience as a powerful ideological heuristic in electoral politics, informing voters’ evaluations.

Based on the results of the first two empirical chapters, it appears that veterans are politically ambitious, motivated by their self-perceived qualifications and goals for personal achievement. In elections, despite claims to “put politics aside,” a military background has an ideological connotation that candidates can deploy strategically. The final chapter examines the extent to which these findings relate to veterans’ performance in office (Chapter 4). Returning to the veteran narrative that suggests electing more veterans will help reduce dysfunction and gridlock, I explore the legislative behavior of veterans serving in Congress. Are veteran lawmakers more effective than those without military experience? Are they more bipartisan? Drawing on House data from the 104th to 116th congresses (1995-2021), I examine the extent to which military experience influences a lawmaker’s capacity to advance legislation and engage in bipartisan behavior. I find that veteran lawmakers are more effective when it comes to moving consequential bills through the lawmaking process. Additionally, veterans appear more willing to collaborate with members of the opposite party, particularly during recent congresses. Taken together, these findings offer encouraging support for the veteran narrative.

Overall, this dissertation offers an empirical response to the growing interest surrounding veterans in electoral politics. I test several popular claims and assumptions about how military experience influences political behavior. While veterans likely consider running for office to advance personal goals and their military service is likely to be used for political gain, I find evidence that veterans govern in a manner that most consider normatively desirable. I consider the implications of these findings on the efforts to recruit and elect more veterans as well as the consequences for American civil-military relations norms. This research argues that future work on candidate emergence and electoral politics must not overlook the effects of military experience.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Veterans, Electoral Politics, Candidate Emergence, Political Ambition, Legislative Behavior, Military Experience, Civil-Military Relations
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