How the Vietnam Draft Helped Elect President Obama

A new study finds that men who faced the prospect of fighting in the war were more likely to vote for Democrats even decades later

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During the Vietnam era, "men of eligible age were randomly assigned draft numbers based on their birthday," Professors Robert Erikson and Laura Stoker recount in a fascinating new study on the effects of the draft. "Thus, young men could find themselves facing the likelihood of being sent to Vietnam, escape altogether, or some ambiguous status in-between." The average man's opposition to the war rose along with the likelihood that he would be forced to fight in it. No surprise there. But it turns out that the effect of draft status on political beliefs and affiliations was permanent.

"Males holding low lottery numbers became more anti-war, more liberal, and more Democratic in their voting compared to those whose high numbers protected them from the draft," the study states. "Trace effects are found even when the respondents were re-interviewed in the 1990s."

Note that the political reorientation took place even among men who never had to serve: the increased risk of having to do so was enough to forever change their political behavior, and made them more likely to affiliate with the Democratic Party decades later. Or as the authors put it:

Vulnerability to the draft induced by the 1969 lottery not only structured attitudes toward the Vietnam War, but also provoked a cascade of changes in basic partisan, ideological, and issue attitudes. The breadth, magnitude, and, in some respects, persistence of these attitudinal changes illustrates how powerful self-interest can become when public policies directly touch our lives.

Says James Joyner, "It's worth noting, too, that these men turned against Richard Nixon and the Republican Party despite the fact that the Vietnam War was started under the Democrats and escalated to major war status by Lyndon Johnson."

Interesting stuff.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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