Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat: Did the Bush-Obama Wars Cost Clinton the White House?

20 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2017

See all articles by Douglas L. Kriner

Douglas L. Kriner

Cornell University - Department of Government

Francis X. Shen

Harvard University - Center for Bioethics; Harvard University - Department of Psychiatry; Harvard University - Harvard Law School; MGH Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

Date Written: June 19, 2017


America has been at war continuously for over 15 years, but few Americans seem to notice. This is because the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat. Increasingly, a divide is emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not. In this paper we empirically explore whether this divide—the casualty gap—contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016. The data analysis presented in this working paper finds that indeed, in the 2016 election Trump was speaking to this forgotten part of America. Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House. There are many implications of our findings, but none as important as what this means for Trump’s foreign policy. If Trump wants to win again in 2020, his electoral fate may well rest on the administration’s approach to the human costs of war. Trump should remain highly sensitive to American combat casualties, lest he become yet another politician who overlooks the invisible inequality of military sacrifice. More broadly, the findings suggest that politicians from both parties would do well to more directly recognize and address the needs of those communities whose young women and men are making the ultimate sacrifice for the country.

Keywords: Trump, inequality, Afghanistan, Iraq, casualties, killed in action, wounded in action, 2016 election, military, military manpower, all volunteer force, foreign policy, public opinion, political science, casualty sensitivity, rural

JEL Classification: I14

Suggested Citation

Kriner, Douglas L. and Shen, Francis X., Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat: Did the Bush-Obama Wars Cost Clinton the White House? (June 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Douglas L. Kriner

Cornell University - Department of Government ( email )

Francis X. Shen (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Center for Bioethics ( email )

641 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115
United States

Harvard University - Department of Psychiatry ( email )

Boston, MA
United States

Harvard University - Harvard Law School ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

MGH Center for Law, Brain & Behavior ( email )

55 Fruit Street
Boston, MA 02114
United States

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