Posted by Adam @ 11:16 am on April 30th 2008

What is the domestic political implication of the US death rate in Iraq?

Although it’s a pretty stupid metric to pick, the number and rate of US military deaths in Iraq is nevertheless an important one (you can generally see current and historical totals here, which although a site founded by anti-war types is pretty good on the US casualty figures, albeit having apparent server trouble as I write this).

So, although an increase to 47 deaths this month past might not in itself be enough to worry military planners (they might be worried about what underlies the increase, but that’s a more complex issue) it might have political impact, particularly on John McCain.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that whilst stories of increasing or steady rates of US deaths are newsworthy in the US mass media, the absence of deaths (like most absences of newsworthy items) isn’t very newsworthy in itself; when members of the public do apply the metric of US deaths to judge how badly things are going in Iraq, then, it’s politically bad for McCain twice. It hurts McCain when things are increasing or maintaining a level to which they have risen and it doesn’t much benefit him when they’re lower. Now, that’s the nature of one’s political fortunes being tied to something as intrinsically unpopular as a longish foreign war — I don’t think that there’s any point blaming the media, who are simply following their audience’s interests and whilst I do think that the majority of the voting public are pretty seriously mistaken in their opinions surrounding how to judge progress and potential success, not to mention the best course of action with respect to Iraq in general, that’s their right — but there clearly was some benefit to McCain from the reduction of the US bodycount rate over the last 6 months or so. If nothing else, it allowed him to focus on the underlying qualities that make him appeal to voters, including those underlying his continued (and unpopular) vocal support of the Iraq effort when things were much grimmer as reported by the press.

So, my question, I guess, is what effect an increase in the rate of US deaths might have on the election and to what level the rate of US deaths would have to increase to achieve whatever effects it might. This is not the only metric (and it’s certainly not close to the best one; even the rate of expenditure of money probably makes more sense) but it seems to me that it’s a powerful one nevertheless (as I linked, this month’s increase to 47 US servicepeople killed in April has made the press and I think that I heard Rachel Maddow mention it yesterday on MSNBC).

Personally, I think that over a hundred deaths in a month is going to re-awaken the passions of the anti-war section of the middle (the middle looking to be the key sector of the electorate, particularly if it’s a McCain-Obama election as it looks to be). I think that those people, who I guess are a significant majority of the middle, are currently against the war and maybe want withdrawal from Iraq soonish but it’s not their primary or only political concern right now; an increase in deaths could push it back up the list. An increase to the pre-lull levels of monthly deaths (say, 60-85 a month) would also get a lot of media coverage which would help the Democrat candidate (particularly if that person is Obama, as we expect). I guess there’s always the chance that an increase might push the anti-war left (whom I don’t think are particularly important in this election, in the sense that they won’t come close to deciding it) to paroxysms of electorally-damaging Sheehan-like fervour (Cindy Sheehan, incidentally, has filed to run against Nancy Pelosi in San Franciso, as she promised last year) but I think that both Obama and Clinton are adroit enough to avoid association with all of that

I’m not attempting a big discussion of Iraq, or even worthwhile metrics for progress (or failure, as you will); I’m particularly interested in the specific political effect of US death rate in Iraq on this year’s election campaigns and outcome.


  1. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that anybody’s opinion on the Iraq war is changed by the death toll, except for the immediate acquaintances of the deceased.

    People who are for the war won’t have their opinions changed by a marginal increase in the death rate among people they don’t know. People who are against it won’t change their mind because of a decrease, even if it’s to zero. And people who don’t care aren’t going to care unless it starts impacting them personally.

    I think the existence of the Iraq operation alters the political landscape, but I don’t know that the relative death rate is too terribly important.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/30/2008 @ 12:08 pm

  2. Well, as I said in post (second-to-last paragraph), my position is that I think that the current death rate escalates the Iraq War issue up people’s list of political priorities. I can see a point where a death rate might actually change minds, but I think that it’d have to be significantly higher than it currently is, or has been, to do that.

    Comment by Adam — 4/30/2008 @ 12:17 pm

  3. This isn’t as straightforward a metric as merely death rate. It depends, to a fairly significant extent, upon how a death surge would be covered by the media. A number is briefly disturbing but faceless. So even if 100 soldiers were killed in Iraq this month, if it is mentioned in passing as a statistic, the political impact is not nearly as big.

    There used to be a personalization of the dead that’s lacking now. The loss was thrust in front of us pretty constantly.

    I am perhaps overly sensitive to this. When my college roommate was killed in Iraq (January of last year) there was no escaping the news coverage. There was even video footage of the helo she was flying struggling and then blowing up. It was played repeatedly, back to back showings coupled with people’s reactions. There were cameras all over the place at her funeral. That kind of scrutiny on the individual was prevelant a year and half ago. I haven’t seen anything like that lately.

    Not to say that a high number can’t be used to beat McCain about the head, but when it’s just a number you lose that edge of grief and a bit of the urgency. Which brings me back to the point, that I digressed on; it’s the focus, not the number. What number would bring back the media focus? It would have to be pretty significant.

    Comment by Liz — 4/30/2008 @ 12:18 pm

  4. The media is very busy, Liz. I mean Angelina Jolie apparently has unusually large veins in her arms for some reason and stories of that magnitude require thorough investigation and coverage.

    Comment by James — 4/30/2008 @ 12:25 pm

  5. Sorry to hear about your college room-mate, which does give you a perspective that I lack.

    I suspect that there’s possibly less journalists in Iraq now, too (and it may be harder for them to get around to cover stories), which would presumably lessen the available coverage.

    If US military deaths went up to 100 in a month, though, I genuinely think that the media would cover it quite a lot. So far as US military death rate is concerned, it’d be back to pre-surge levels and, as it is something that has a resonance amongst the American population, I do think it’d be considered pretty newsworthy (along as, of course, there wasn’t an Angelina Jolie story extant, as James mentions), although it’d competing with wall-to-wall political campaign coverage to some extent.

    Comment by Adam — 4/30/2008 @ 12:38 pm

  6. You’re probably right. 100 has a definite ring to it; one of those threshold numbers that sends the media into a frenzy of pontification. (Kind of the like the ‘oh dear God, oil just reached $100 a barrel!’ phenomenon.)

    And James, Britney Spears has been behaving herself lately, so that has to free up some air time, Angie’s veins notwithstanding:).

    Comment by Liz — 4/30/2008 @ 1:09 pm

  7. At the very least, Americans want to see improvement, and a level or increasing death rate does not show that.

    I think anything over one death per day gets noticed, and a the margins, will affect the election. It is too bad things like the suicide rate of the troops don’t get discussed as much as they should, as the cost is being grossly underestimated at this point.

    In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. Thatís 120 each and every week, in just one year.

    CBS News.

    The “progress” line is all the war party has left, and it is pretty weak at this point.

    Comment by daveg — 4/30/2008 @ 1:10 pm

  8. One would have to compare the current suicide rate with the historic (pre-Iraq) suicide rate to draw conclusions about Iraq’s effect, and with the suicide rate amongst the general population (or, more properly, people in the general population with a similar psychological profile, as ‘veterans’ form a self-selected sample). I can certainly believe that it is higher amongst veterans than the general population and I’d be interested to see how it compares amongst veterans of Iraq with veterans of other wars.

    As for whether an increasing death rate shows a lack of progress, well, that illustrates in part why death rate is a bad metric; you’d have to know what the troops were doing and whether it was different to what they were doing before.

    Comment by Adam — 4/30/2008 @ 1:35 pm

  9. I don’t think the death rate itself matter so much as it’s relative value compared to other metrics. I think over 100 would be a bad PR month for the Iraq war, because it’s an easy gross metric. So to would zero be its own political story. Otherwise, I don’t think the difference between 37 and 52 matters much, save how it allows the number to be reported. “Deadliest Month this year in Iraq” or “Bad to Pre-Surge levels” or “Lowest month since the surge began” or what have you is what gets played.

    Comment by Brad — 4/30/2008 @ 11:42 pm

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