The Military Vote

Duke political scientist Peter Feaver reports that the military remains overwhelmingly Republican:

Pundits have long speculated that the Democrats were making strong inroads with a constituency hitherto notoriously resistant to their appeal: the military. Since Gen. Wesley Clark threw his hat in the presidential ring, reporters have chased the “military vote” story, each new media report sprinkled with anecdotes about troops who questioned the Iraq war or who drew trenchant comparisons between the Vietnam combat valor of John Kerry and President Bush. Surely Bush is in trouble, and, in a close election, perhaps the military vote might swing the outcome as it did in Florida 2000, only this time for the Democrats. Even Kerry joined the bandwagon in the first presidential debate, citing individual military supporters he met on the campaign trail (the only voters Kerry mentioned that night).

We now have fairly compelling evidence, in the form of a Military Times survey of its readership (primarily career military officers and enlisted personnel), that reports of the demise of Bush’s popularity were premature. By an astonishing 72 to 17 percent margin, the active-duty military personnel who took the survey favored Bush over Kerry (Guard and Reserve respondents favored Bush, 73 to 18 percent). Frankly, the margin greatly exceeds anything that I or any other analyst had expected.

To be sure, the survey method is tilted in Bush’s favor, because it underrepresented the short-termers and junior enlisted personnel who would presumably be more Democratic (and thus more pro-Kerry). But the poll cannot be dismissed on technical grounds. The military is not captured in sufficient numbers by regular polls to say anything meaningful, and it is very difficult to reach the military in a targeted political survey. The Military Times readership is more reflective of career military people who at least entertain the idea of serving the 20 years needed to earn full retirement benefits, and previous surveys have established that this group tends to be more Republican. However, survey methods cannot account for a spread of 55 points. If the groundswell for Kerry claimed in earlier news reports was happening, it would have shown up here.

This is indeed interesting. I have long taken it for granted that the officer corps was overwhelmingly Republican and that the senior NCOs tilted in that direction as well, although would have never thought the margin was anywhere near this large before the survey results were released. Feaver’s explanation is interesting:

Despite an extraordinary effort to woo the military, then, the Democrats still have not overcome their traditional tone-deafness when it comes to civil-military relations. Kerry’s scorched-earth critique of the Iraq war may excite the base, but it alarms the military. The point is not that members of the military are blinded to mistakes or difficulties in Iraq. Rather, the point is that Kerry has unwittingly revived two specters that haunt the military. The first is the ghost of Vietnam, which to the military (rightly or wrongly) means “fighting a war that domestic critics have made unpopular to the American public.” Kerry is long on critique and short on what he would do differently from, or even better than, Bush. What the troops probably hear most loudly is red-meat rhetoric like “grand diversion,” “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and other statements likely to undermine public resolve to see the war through to a successful conclusion. The second ghost is President Bill Clinton as commander in chief, which to the military (rightly or wrongly) means an indecisive leader who wavers in response to shifting political winds. Kerry may believe that he has never changed his position on the Iraq war, but it is doubtful the military buys that spin.

This strikes me as quite plausible. Feaver shares my concern, expressed last Friday, about the politicization of the military–both in terms of it being used as a political pawn during the campaign and in its leadership becoming this strongly identified with one of the parties.

Update (10/15): See also Annenberg Military Climate Survey, which both reinforces Feaver’s points and partially allays the fears of the politicization of the American military.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    Feaver shares my concern, expressed last Friday, about the politicization of the military–both in terms of it being used as a political pawn during the campaign and in its leadership becoming this strongly identified with one of the parties.

    Well, if one of the parties didn’t have such a widely accepted reputation for “loathing the military,” that wouldn’t be happening.

  2. Jem says:

    Also, don’t forget that the strident criticisms of war conduct also are aggressive shots at the competence (i.e., wrong strategy, poor use of American troops) and honor (i.e., generals too afraid to ask for more troops because the DoD civilians might not like it) of the military–primarily its field-grade officers and senior NCOs. If one party energizes its base by frequently and loudly accusing you of incompetence and venality, you might not be favorably disposed toward them either!

  3. Boyd says:

    It’s interesting how perspective shapes one’s view.

    “I have long taken it for granted that the officer corps was overwhelmingly Republican and that the senior NCOs tilted in that direction as well…”

    I would have expressed it the other way around: Senior enlisted are overwhelmingly conservative (if not Republican), while the officer corps tends to conservatism, but with a greater mix of commie bast…er, liberals.

  4. carpeicthus says:

    I know, Jem. It doesn’t explain why they like Republicans, though, given how much of that they did in the 90s.

  5. Attila Girl says:

    Let’s remember that the ratio wouldn’t be quite so skewed if the Dems had nominated someone like Lieberman—or at least someone with less baggage than Kerry. There is a lot of rage out there at him specifically.

  6. LJD says:

    Republican criticism of Clinton’s inaction and miltary cuts, compared to Democratic criticism of the military’s success in Iraq.

    No comparison.

  7. McGehee says:

    Carp, that comment of yours had to have been deliberately intellectually dishonest. LJD nailed you.

  8. Dodd says:

    To repeat a point I made to my friend while listening to Kerry list all of his Generals in Friday’s debate, Kerry’s problem here is that he can quite literally list every military man worth mentioning who supports him in less than 30 seconds. Bush would need rather a bit longer than that.

    Listening to him buff his credentials by dropping the names of a handful of generals is as amusing as seeing some liberal deny that the media tilts left by listing prominent conservative journalist/pundits. Both always finish so quickly….