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The Decline of the Veteran Surplus: Essays on Military Veterans in Congress Open Access

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Throughout American history, military veterans as a percentage of the overall population have often been over-represented in Congress. This over-representation, labeled the “veteran surplus” by scholars, reached its peak in the 1970 when a nation of only 14% veterans elected a Congress with over 75% military veterans (a veteran surplus of over 60%). Since this peak, the decline in the veteran surplus has resulted in a present-day Congress with less than 19% veterans in a nation of 7% veterans (12% surplus). This dissertation presents three substantive essays that examine the decline in the veteran surplus over the last four decades from different perspectives, with a focus on electoral outcomes, legislative behavior, and political ambition. The first essay presents the findings of a new study that examines why and when candidates with military experience reap a veteran bonus at the polls. Utilizing a unique general election dataset of the United States Senate from 1982-2016, the essay demonstrates that certain types of military veteran candidates do gain a significant veteran bonus in congressional elections when measured by vote share. This advantage over nonveterans is conditioned by party, the type of race, the timeframe of elections, and whether or not a military veteran served in a warzone. The key findings suggest that previous conclusions in the literature should be reexamined with military experience structured as more than a binary variable. The second essay examines legislative behavior of military veterans in Congress over time utilizing established measures of bipartisanship and legislative effectiveness. The evidence presented shows that veterans differ from nonveterans in important ways during the lawmaking process. These differences depend upon the nature of military service, whether or not a veteran serves in the majority or minority, the chamber of Congress, and generational cohort membership. The third essay develops a theory of “political activity and political ambition depreciation” that results from military service, and tests hypotheses developed from the theory with a unique survey of officers in the United States Navy. The survey results suggest that military officers do not widely participate in permitted political activities beyond acts associated with voting. Additionally, a larger gender gap in nascent political ambition exists among Navy officers as compared to previous studies of civilian populations. The survey also finds that the vast majority of officers view service in Congress as a noble endeavor---yet harbor little ambition to join the ranks on Capitol Hill after military service is complete. The quantitative data throughout the dissertation is supported by qualitative data from 54 in-depth interviews. These interviews were conducted with former and current Members of Congress; successful and unsuccessful candidates for Congress; congressional staffers; leaders of veteran interest groups; and political elite involved with candidate recruitment and campaigns. Taken together, the three essays contribute to the understanding of the reasons behind and the impact of the decline of the veteran surplus in Congress, and point the way for further research.

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