Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are said to be tussling over the fabled "military vote," and during this extraordinarily tedious election season, both have highlighted their fondness for all things military. Despite the efforts of both candidates to drum up military support, however, most commentators assume that the military "naturally" supports Republicans over Democrats. But will "the military vote" really favor Romney next week?
Romney hopes it will, and right-wing conspiracy theorists are convinced it will -- that's why they keep huffing and puffing about alleged Obama campaign attempts to suppress military votes, through methods as devious as neglecting to inform service members of their voting rights and supposedly burning military ballots.
But the Obama campaign has no reason to hope that service members don't vote, and Romney shouldn't count his chickens before they hatch. The military is far from a "natural" Republican voting bloc. Although the military appears to have skewed Republican in the 1980s and ‘90s , for most of the last century the politics of military personnel appear to have more or less mirrored the politics of the civilian population.
There's ample reason to believe that this is the case again today.
Yes, it's true that the televisions in the Pentagon food courts seem to be showing Fox News most of the time and that military personnel are drawn disproportionately from stereotypically "red" states. (In particular, the South, the Southwest, and the mountain states are over-represented within the military, while the Northeast is under-represented, relative to the overall population.) It's also true that the majority of surveyed military personnel self-identify as "conservative" in the annual and much-cited Military Times poll.
But this masks a far more complex reality, and one that may be just as likely to be favorable to Democratic hopes as to Republicans.
It's harder than you might think to get a solid handle on public opinion within the military. While the Defense Department collects and analyzes data on a thousand different things, from the average number of push-ups soldiers can do to the efficacy of using mules to transport equipment in the mountains of Afghanistan, it does not collect information on service members' political opinions.
Meanwhile, most polls that purport to show "military opinions" suffer from various flaws. The Military Times poll, for instance, relies on voluntary responses to surveys sent by email to subscribers -- and, as the editors note, a disproportionate number of the respondents are white, male, and older than average. What's more, many polls fail to differentiate between career military personnel and short-timers, or between officers and enlisted personnel.
There's no single reliable source of information on political views of military personnel. But perhaps the best recent studies of military attitudes come from Jason Dempsey, an Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of West Point's social science faculty. Dempsey conducted exhaustive research on the attitudes of Army personnel, both through the analysis of older studies and through his own polling.
Overall, he found that social and political attitudes of Army personnel track fairly closely with the views of the civilian population. On certain issues, Army personnel are in fact decidedly more liberal the general population: in 2004 (the most recent year for which there is hard data), for instance, civilians were substantially more likely than Army personnel to oppose abortion under all circumstances, and large majorities of Army personnel supported increasing domestic government spending on education, health care, Social Security, and environmental protection.
To a significant extent, the perception that members of the military are "right wing" is a holdover from the post-Vietnam era. In 1976, a study by the Foreign Policy Leadership Project found that only 33 percent of military officers identified with the Republican Party. But the end of the draft and the advent of the all-volunteer military dramatically changed the military's character, making it smaller, more professionalized, and more isolated from mainstream civilian society.
After Vietnam, many of those who remained in the smaller force felt "abandoned" by the civilians who had sent them to war. By 1996, the percentage of officers identifying with the Republican Party had climbed to 67 percent (the same period saw only a slight rise in Republican Party identification among civilian elites).
But today, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military is a different animal than the military of the 1980s and early 1990s. Today, the majority of senior officers continue to self-identify as conservative, but they make up only about 6 percent of the overall Army population. And Dempsey's research found that they are dramatically more conservative (and more Republican) than enlisted personnel and junior officers.
Given this, it seems likely that future studies of the officer corps will find fewer self-identified conservatives, as today's most senior officers -- who entered the military in the seventies and eighties -- retire and are replaced by a new generation.
Dempsey's most interesting finding, perhaps, is that self-selected political labels are extremely poor predictors of servicemembers' actual views on social, political, and economic issues. Regardless of how they label themselves to pollsters, for instance, officers' views on issues ranging from abortion to government spending on social programs tend, on the whole, to be moderate to liberal, while the views of enlisted soldiers tend to skew liberal.
The notion that "the military" is homogeneous and inherently right-wing is out of date and should be tossed into history's dustbin. "On the whole, military opinions tend to parallel civilian opinions," concludes Dempsey. "The idea that service members have a distinctly different worldview (that is, a ‘military mind') -- conservative and dramatically out of step with the rest of society -- is a myth that must be constantly debunked."
So what does all this mean for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? Polls on 2012 presidential voting preference are contradictory, with some suggesting that military personnel and veterans support Romney, and others giving the edge to Obama.
But insofar as money talks, data on political donations in the 2012 presidential cycle suggests diminished military enthusiasm for the Republican Party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that tracks campaign contributions, military contributions to Barack Obama's campaign have so far outstripped contributions to Mitt Romney -- by a ratio of almost two to one.