The Iraq War and the Loss of Republican Dominance in National Security

Article excerpt

For decades, Americans have trusted the Republicans over the Democrats to handle national security issues, by a wide margin. Over the Bush presidency, that gap has disappeared. The authors explore the causes and consequences of this loss and suggest several new avenues for research on issue ownership. Findings indicate that Bush's handling of the Iraq war has played a decisive role in diminishing the Republican Party's reputational advantage on national security. This has had significant electoral repercussions both for the president and his copartisans in Congress.

Keywords: issue ownership; electoral behavior; political parties; policy performance; Iraq war; George W. Bush

Democrats also may have a residual disadvantage going into 2008 - a long-standing disposition among voters to view Republicans as stronger on issues involving national security. Without question, Bush has done serious damage to the Republican brand in this arena. But, with me nation waging two wars and terrorism still a threat, that underlying sentiment might be one of the reasons G.O.P. candidates appear competitive at all.

-Jay Carney 2007

Looking back four years after the invasion of Iraq, striking changes in American public opinion have occurred. President George W. Bush has not enjoyed majority approval of his handling of foreign policy since the end of his first term. Approval of his performance on the Iraq war fell below 50 percent well before the 2004 elections and dipped to barely 25 percent in early 2007. Even on terrorism, Bush has not enjoyed majority support for his performance since mid-2005. When asked which party would better handle the war in Iraq, Americans have expressed more confidence in the Democrats than the Republicans since at least the end of 2005. With regard to handling national security policy and the war on terrorism generally, the gap between the two parties has effectively closed to zero.

The magnitude of these changes is enormous. Republican dominance on national security issues had been sustained for twenty years or more; the Democrats had not enjoyed a public opinion advantage in this area since at least the end of the Cold War, and almost certainly since the end of the Vietnam War.1 Throughout the 1990s, the Republican Party maintained a 25- to 40-point advantage over the Democrats in public trust to handle national security problems. Yet by the 2006 elections, this gap had all but disappeared in polling data - though it is unclear whether this new arrangement is durable or only temporary.

Has the Iraq war cost the Republican Party its issue ownership over national security? What has this loss looked like? And what are its consequences, both for President Bush and for his copartisans in Congress? This article provides initial answers to these questions and uses this arresting case to spur development of the literature on issue ownership. Existing work is surprisingly modest on questions of ownership loss, the drivers of such loss, and the linkages between policy performance and issue reputations. Although this article cannot resolve all of these questions, we suggest some potential answers and lay out questions for future research.

We find that the Republican Party is no longer the more trusted party to handle national security and that roughly 65 percent of its loss of public confidence on this issue can be attributed to Bush's performance on Iraq. Through the end of 2006, this loss was heavily concentrated among Democrats and Independents; Republican partisans, though somewhat reduced in number since 2002, remained highly likely to express trust in their own party to handle national security. Further, this ownership loss negatively affected both President Bush and Republican congressional candidates in the 2004 and 2006 elections, even after controlling for contemporaneous performance evaluations, partisanship, and a battery of relevant covariates.

Issue Ownership, Presidential Performance, and the Vote

Petrocik's (1996) theory of issue ownership suggests that parties sometimes enjoy fundamental advantages on particular issues such that they can reap electoral rewards by priming the public to vote on the basis of those issues (also see Budge and Farlie 1983; Petrocik, Benoit, and Hansen 2003/2004). …