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Military Less Republican Than You Think

In response to a reader query wondering if Rick Santorum’s strong showing in El Paso County in last week’s Colorado Caucus demonstrated a “military problem” for Mitt Romney that could come into play on Super Tuesday, Andrew Gelman points to some research by political scientists Jason Dempsey and Bob Shapiro from several years back showing a bifurcation within the military ranks.

It is true that the upper echelons of the military tilt right. My own research confirmed that about two-thirds of majors and higher-ranking officers identify as conservative, as previous studies found. But that tilt becomes far less pronounced when you expand the pool of respondents. That is because only 32 percent of the Army’s enlisted soldiers consider themselves conservative, while 23 percent identify as liberal and the remaining 45 percent are self-described moderates. These numbers closely mirror the ideological predilections of the civilian population. . . .

The political differences between officers and enlisted personnel can be partly explained by a demographic divide. Whereas officers are predominantly white, have at least a bachelor’s degree, and draw incomes that place them in the middle or upper-middle class, the enlisted ranks have a higher proportion of minorities, make less money than officers, and typically enter service with only a high school diploma. Nevertheless, even when controlling for factors like race and gender, officers are significantly more likely than soldiers to identify as conservative. . . .

In addition to its ideological moderation, the Army is not as partisan as popularly portrayed. Whereas 65 percent of Americans think of themselves as either Republican or Democrat, according to the Annenberg survey, my study shows that only 43 percent of the military identifies with one of the two major political parties. Two out of three officers consider themselves either Republican or Democrat, but only 37 percent of enlisted personnel do so.

Officers tend to be not only more partisan, but also more Republican, with GOP affinity strongest among the highest ranks. While I [Dempsey] was unable to fully parse the reason for this, the evidence strongly suggests the pattern is generational. Today’s senior officers entered the Army during the late 1970s and 1980s, a time when the Republican Party had a strong advantage on issues of national defense and the Democratic Party was seen as antiwar if not anti-military. By contrast, junior officers who joined the Army after 2001 are almost as likely to be Democrats as they are Republicans, foreshadowing a possible shift in officer attitudes.

Joshua Tucker posts a note from Major Jim Golby, a Stanford PhD and West Point instructor.

To my knowledge, there are no current polls about military preferences for the GOPcandidates. There are a few unscientific polls done by a newspaper, The Military Times, that measure military approval of the president, but that is it. They show approval for president Obama within the military at around 25%.

I have done some research in this field, however [paper available here]. One of the main take-aways from my research is that Republican officers in the military and elite veterans are no different, on average, than Republican civilian elites once we control for demographic factors. Although my work focuses on senior officers and veterans, Jason Dempsey’s book,Our Army, and Jeremy Tiegen’s paper support this general claim for soldiers and veterans, respectively.

[...]

[T]here is no evidence suggesting that any GOP nominee would have trouble winning the ‘military vote’ since there really is no such thing. There are not many Democrats in the military and there are even fewer liberals in the ranks; in general, most Democrats in the military are moderate or conservative Democrats (especially in the higher ranks).

In the comments, our own Chris Lawrence observes,

I’d caution against conflating officers and enlisted personnel; officers do tend to be overwhelmingly Republican, but NCOs and lower enlisted are much more mixed in partisanship and ideology, although also much less likely to vote, particularly in the E-1-4 ranks, probably in large part due to age. As Jim suggests probably a large part of the differences between the military and the public at large are due to ethnicity, SES, and region (the officer corps of the Army and Air Force, at least, tend to be substantially more southern than the public at large).

As far as the “military vote” might go, given the relatively small size of the officer corps and their lack of political organization or geographic concentration (military people, including their spouses and other dependents, tend to retain residency in their hometowns rather than registering to vote locally when reassigned, so even “military towns” will have few active-duty military/dependent voters), I doubt it could ever be all that influential even if their turnout was much higher.

There’s a lot to unpack here but the takeaways would seem to be:

1. The military, and especially its senior officers, are more Republican and conservative than the country as a whole. But the extent of this is grossly exaggerated, because the media naturally focuses on the attitudes of the officer corps, particularly more senior officers.

2. These differences are almost entirely explainable by the demographic makeup of the military, which is self-selected.

3. As with the rest of the country, the younger cohorts of the military–including its officer corps–are less Republican and less conservative. See, for example, the enormous swings in attitudes on gays in the military over the last 20 years.

4. The notion that the “military vote” plays a major role in choosing our presidents is vastly overstated. In addition to the issues Lawrence notes, a third of the states essentially disenfranchise military personnel by mailing absentee ballots too late. The caveat is that, because a disproportionate number of military personnel claim Florida as their home of record in order to avoid paying state income taxes, they could potentially serve as a decisive swing vote in an incredibly close contest along the lines of the 2000 election. Those are, of course, quite uncommon.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    The military, and especially its senior officers, are more Republican and conservative than the country as a whole. But the extent of this is grossly exaggerated, because the media naturally focuses on the attitudes of the officer corps, particularly more senior officers.

    It may be grossly exaggerated in the military as a whole but it’s not grossly exaggerated in the officer corps where I’d have have said it was indeed fairly monolithic. Perhaps this is what you’re saying.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    This doesn’t strike me as particularly odd. Officers tend to be part of the economic elite, therefore they tend to replicate the attitudes of the civilian economic elite.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    therefore they tend to replicate the attitudes of the civilian economic elite.

    Except that the civilian economic elite is much less monolithic and probably half of it democratic and considerably more than half are socially liberal

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  4. superdestroyer says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Black and Hispanic officers are overwhelmingly Democrats. The difference between enlisted and officers is that fewer officers are black and Hispanic as compared to the enlisted ranks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  5. superdestroyer says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    A few points.

    1. Officers are not the economic elite. Few of them attended Ivy leagues and most officers are just middle and upper middle class.

    2. The economic elite in the U.S. are democrats. That is why Manhattan, Boston, SF, DC, and LA are overwhelmingly blue. A person can probably spend a week on Wall Street and never meet anyone who votes for Republicans.

    Remember, politics in the U.S., like the politics of most of the second and third world is the rich and poor against the middle class.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 18

  6. grumpy realist says:

    Is there any further breakdown on the attitudes within the military? “Republican” now stretches over a wide collection of assumptions, including the “social-conservatives”, the
    fiscal conservatives”, the neo-cons, and whatever the ron paul-ites are (confused). Do we know what chunk of the military supports which subset?

    It’s very easy to talk bombastically (and vote) for a position if you know full well you’re never going to have to physically reap the consequences. Witness WWI and the generals versus the grunts in the ditches dying at Verdun.

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  7. Stan says:

    @superdestroyer: “The economic elite in the U.S. are democrats. That is why Manhattan, Boston, SF, DC, and LA are overwhelmingly blue.”

    Don’t be silly. The economic elite in Manhattan et al are divided between Republicans and Democrats, with a tilt towards Republicans. Their peers in Milwaukee, Tulsa, and Atlanta are overwhelmingly Republican. Manhattan, Boston, etc. are overwhelming blue less for cultural reasons than because the overwhelmingly majority of their populations are nowhere close to being elite.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  8. superdestroyer says:

    @Stan:

    Manhattan voted for President Obama at an over 80% rate. The numbers were higher in Boston and SF. Do you really think there are Republicans living in the district of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-rich parts of Chicago)? In 2010 when the Republicans won a huge number of seats, Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s Republican opponent managed to win 31% of the vote.

    Once again, the elite in the economic elite live on the coasts and have always been Democratic Party voters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  9. Mikey says:

    Pretty interesting stuff. As someone who retired from the military fairly recently, I’d have thought the officer ranks were more Democrat, and the enlisted more Republican, than this research indicates.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  10. JKB says:

    Those stats seem to avoid the obvious comparison, length of service and responsible position, best measured by comparing 0-4 and above to E-5 or 6 and above. Being responsible for the lives of others in a real hands-on way tends to impact your views. The realty of leading people and accomplishing real physical things in the world tends to tear away all those pie in the sky ideas that seem so obvious deep in the ranks or university halls.

    An interesting comparison would be to compare the opinions of the average junior member with those of similar rank who achieve early strong leadership positions. Then if the more advanced leader’s views are significantly different determine whether that is a change due to the position of responsibility or if those with such views are more likely to be chosen for such positions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  11. Tano says:

    That is because only 32 percent of the Army’s enlisted soldiers consider themselves conservative, while 23 percent identify as liberal and the remaining 45 percent are self-described moderates. These numbers closely mirror the ideological predilections of the civilian population. . . .

    Actually, “closely mirrors” is not quite the correct description. Most polls I have seen have shown, rather consistently, that in the general population, roughly 20% consider themselves liberal, and 40% each consider themselves moderate and conservative.

    So the enlisted forces are a small but significant bit more liberal than the population at large.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    @superdestroyer:

    Black and Hispanic officers are overwhelmingly Democrats. The difference between enlisted and officers is that fewer officers are black and Hispanic as compared to the enlisted ranks.

    This may or may not be true I have no means of knowing. Do you? But you’ve just confirmed my point that the officer corps is mainly conservative.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Brummagem Joe says:

    @superdestroyer:

    2. The economic elite in the U.S. are democrats. That is why Manhattan, Boston, SF, DC, and LA are overwhelmingly blue. A person can probably spend a week on Wall Street and never meet anyone who votes for Republicans.

    Total nonsense. There are plenty of Republicans on Wall Street and to the extent that the economic elite in places like Boston, LA etc trend Democrat they are easily counterbalanced by the elite in the south and midwest that trends Republican. Overall the economic elite probably trends slightly Dem because of women but it’s fairly evenly balanced. Based on exit polls I think the 2008 election was the first where a majority of voters with college ed and incomes over 200k voted Democratic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    @superdestroyer:

    the elite in the economic elite live on the coasts

    Obviously you have very little contact with the economic elite or don’t you think Romney is a member of the economic elite, and who do you think is ponying up the money for his campaign.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  15. steve says:

    Gelman has done as much work in the area of elite voting as anyone. The lean to the right. The few studies suggesting otherwise seem to forget to mention where they get their data and/or the authors do not respond when questioned.

    http://www.frumforum.com/how-do-the-rich-vote-follow-the-money

    As to the military, officers leaned very heavily to the right when I was in. There is a subculture in the Air Force that makes the Tea Party look like a bunch of hippies. Iraq changed that some.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. James Joyner says:

    @steve: The Air Force in particular has a Holy Roller sect in the senior reaches.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  17. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner:

    The Air Force in particular has a Holy Roller sect in the senior reaches.

    Because there’s a Holy Roller sect at the Air Force Academy and Academy grads are strongly represented in the senior officer ranks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  18. Stan says:

    @superdestroyer: As I said before, the overwhelmingly large majority of people living in so-called elite cities are not themselves wealthy. There are poor areas in Manhattan, lots of them, and the same is true of Boston and the other cities you mentioned.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  19. Tillman says:

    @superdestroyer:

    A person can probably spend a week on Wall Street and never meet anyone who votes for Republicans.

    Well, not everyone in Manhattan works on Wall Street. In fact, I’d say most don’t. Which means this…

    Manhattan voted for President Obama at an over 80% rate.

    …doesn’t say much about the attitudes of Wall Street workers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Tillman: And he ignores the number of people that work on Wall Street and commute in from Long Island, Staten Island, Westchester County, New Jersey, and Connecticut, all of which are decidely more purple than Manhattan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  21. Dazedandconfused says:

    Ron Paul is doing very well with military personnel and their families. I don’t believe they care what the letter behind his name is, they main cncern is whether or not they will have to keep trying to “civilize” the world. I would not be surprised to find that the enlisted ranks go mainly for the guy in the finals perceived to be the least enthusiastic about that, this time around.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Kolohe says:

    I found in the Navy that the officer corps leans conservative (or ‘independent’) but not overwhelming so. Where you really find Rush-listening social and other big C conservatism is in the senior enlisted ranks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. PogueMahone says:

    The Air Force in particular has a Holy Roller sect in the senior reaches.

    Where never lark or even eagle flew –

    And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

    http://www.davidpbrown.co.uk/poetry/john-magee.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Ken says:

    I would hope to God that the military never becomes majority Democrat/Communist. You can bet that the moment it does, the Democrat/Communist will use it to confiscate firearms and set up a Stalin-type dictatorship. That is actually what Joyner is subtly threatening here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 10

  25. Andy says:

    The Air Force in particular has a Holy Roller sect in the senior reaches.

    Can you quantify that or is it, like most of this post, based on anecdotes reinforced by preconceptions?

    The problem is there are basically few-to-none statistically sound surveys of the US military. Speculation about political leanings are therefor largely speculation. there are a lot of us who would refuse to answer such questions if polled. No one really knows and I think that’s a good thing

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. Jib says:

    They did not mention geography. I bet if you took into account where the recruits come from you would find no difference between political makeup of civilians and military. Senior officers are different in that they have gone through several selection filters to get where they are at. And they are older. Just compare the age of people in the TP rallies compared with the OWS. The conservative movement is aging. I bet when the next generation gets into senior positions, it will be less conservative than today but more conservative than the general population.

    I mean seriously, when has senior military NOT been more conservative than the the general population?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. Stan says:

    @Ken: I’ve often noted the resemblance between Barack Obama and Leon Trotsky.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  28. Tillman says:

    @Ken:

    That is actually what Joyner is subtly threatening here.

    Really? I totally missed that. Thank you for pointing out this extremely insightful piece of information.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. afkbrad says:

    The study is extremely biased. It was performed in the Army which has the largest section of minorities, poor, disadvantaged, and under-educated. If the Air Force were sampled and the Army results tossed out the outcome would be completely opposite.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. afkbrad says:

    The article tries to link large numbers of military who make Florida their state of residence as some kind of cheat that helped Bush win.

    First, let’s talk about HOW you can make Florida your state of residence. The easiest way is living there before you join the military. Next, if you ever get stationed in Florida you can then claim it as home until you leave the military. Finally, if you have close relatives in Florida with a physical address you can claim you live with them and make Florida your home.

    The same thing can be said of Texas. Lots of military personnel change their state of residence to Texas once they get stationed there to avoid paying state income taxes. Texas also has FAR more military bases than Florida.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. afkbrad says:

    How come no mention of the very thorough research on this subject from The Heritage Foundation?

    http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2005/11/who-bears-the-burden-demographic-characteristics-of-us-military-recruits-before-and-after-9-11

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  32. afkbrad says:

    Only 1% of the entire population of America’s 18-24 year olds meet the MINIMUM requirements to join the Air Force. When you look at the Army which has the lowest requirements of any branch only 5% of the nations 18-24 year olds (male and female) meet the MINIMUM standards to join.

    Here is what compromises the minimum standard. Complete high school, never been in trouble with the law, not overweight, no physical problems, not having too many kids, not doing drugs, and can pass the entrance exam.

    http://www.hill.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123064774

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  33. superdestroyer says:

    That most officers are conservatives does not reflect well on the progressive belief that diversity will make people more liberal and progressives.

    When one considers that most of the officer corps attended second and third tier universities and are much more diverse than the Ivy League and Ivy likes and when one considers that white officers supervise and lead a very diverse work force, it should be obvious that working and living in a diverse world may actually make one more conservative. Look at how whites in Portland and Vermont are very liberal but whites in the military or in Alabama are more conservative.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  34. James Joyner says:

    @superdestroyer:

    [W]orking and living in a diverse world may actually make one more conservative. Look at how whites in Portland and Vermont are very liberal but whites in the military or in Alabama are more conservative.

    You’re assuming that “diversity” is the only variable at work here. It isn’t. The military, and its officer corps in particular, is essentially self-selected. And it’s disproportionately Southern and rural.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  35. afkbrad says:

    @James Joyner: If I remember correctly it was those southern rural officers who gave the enemy all they could handle during the Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, and the Civil War. Fast forward 100 years and even during the wars of the last century it was generals from rural areas who were the most effective in battle.

    Diversity should be the last thing the military thinks about when it comes to breaking things and killing people. The only thing that should matter is capability and NOT the color of one’s skin or sex.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  36. Wayne says:

    I suspect if you ask Senior NCOs if they are conservative, their numbers will be closer to the Officer than the total numbers. The old saying “if you have never been a Democrat, you are heartless. If you stay a Democrat, you are brainless”. Although I would point out being a Republican doesn’t make you a conservative nor does a Democrat make you a liberal, especially some Republicans in the last 20 years. I would also point out the definition of conservative, liberal, moderate, and especially independent varies a great deal. Many consider independents as a larger set than just someone who registers that way.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1