Articles and Analysis


Holm: Military Partisanship over the Bush Years

Topics: Military

Today's Guest Pollster contribution comes from Peter Holm, a Ph.D candidate in  Political Science at  the University of Wisconsin Madison. His research focuses on the military and political attitudes.

Last month, the Military Times newspapers released their quadrennial election survey showing that 68% of currently serving military respondents favored John McCain for president, as compared to only 23% for Barack Obama. Examining the results, Duke professor of political science Peter Feaver noted that "A lot of people thought that eight years of frustration with the Bush administration was going to undermine [the conservative Republican leanings of the military as an institution]. This evidence suggests that it hasn't undermined it as much as they thought, at least not yet."

In one respect, Feaver is clearly right: the military remains significantly more conservative and more Republican than the public generally. But let's take a closer look at the evidence to see whether there has actually been some moderation in military Republicanism over the course of the Bush administration.

Both Times reporter Brendan McGarry, in his piece reporting the poll results, and West Point professor Jason Dempsey, here on Pollster, explained that the Military Times survey cannot be regarded as representative of the military population as a whole. The papers' readers are whiter, older, more likely to be male, more senior in rank, and more highly educated, for example, than are the armed forces at large. Further, the survey (like all the Times' annual surveys) used non-random sampling of this already unrepresentative group, simply allowing any subscriber or former subscriber to respond to an emailed questionnaire. Among active-duty personnel, for example, junior enlisted soldiers (E-1 through E-4) comprise about 22% of the force, but only 6% of the Times 2008 election survey respondents came from the junior enlisted ranks. So how can we use these data to make inferences about political attitudes among the military generally?

One good way to do this is to look at trends over time, as Dempsey demonstrated. A second approach, which I use here, is to weight the military survey data to bring the sample into line with the demographic characteristics of the force as a whole. This is as simple as the weighting we see in most national opinion surveys every day. When the sample doesn't conform to the expected distribution of sexes, races, and ages among registered (or likely) voters, for example, most organizations use post-stratification or raking procedures to "weight up" the responses from underrepresented groups.

I constructed weights for the Times annual surveys of active-duty servicemembers going back to 2003 using race, sex, rank, age, education, and branch as raking variables. I used Department of Defense personnel data from 2005 to construct these weights, as full data on all the demographic variables I included are not available for each year individually. In any case, the demographic profile of the armed forces changes quite slowly; the biggest change over the past eight years has probably been the aging of the active force as recruitment and retention pressures have pushed the services to raise the age limits for entering and leaving the force. Unfortunately, the 2008 survey focused almost exclusively on McCain-Obama comparisons and did not ask respondents to identify with a party or place themselves on an ideological spectrum, so the data from that survey cannot be included here. (The 2008 annual survey, distinct from the election survey, will ask these questions, as annual surveys in previous years have.)

Presidential Approval and Party Identification

Let's look first at President Bush's approval ratings among active-duty servicemembers. Figure 1 shows that, in fact, Bush's support inside the military has declined significantly, while his disapproval rate has increased. In 2003, 62% approved of his job performance and 17% disapproved. In 2007, those numbers were 44% and 36%, respectively. The largest shift came during the year 2006, when civil violence in Iraq reached its peak and disapproval shot up from 22% to 39%.


Figure 1. Source: Military Times annual surveys, 2003-2007;
weighting done by the author using Department of Defense personnel data.

Has this dissatisfaction with the president translated into declining Republican identification among military personnel? Yes, but less strongly. As Figure 2 shows, the gap between Republican and Democratic identifiers closed significantly during the first two years of the second term - in fact, the Democratic deficit was more than cut in half from 37 to 16 points between 2004 and 2006. In 2007, though, this trend moderated. Republican identification rebounded and Democratic identification receded as violence in Iraq abated, the president appeared to have developed a more coherent and successful strategy for managing the conflict, and Republicans attacked congressional Democrats for wanting to "pull the rug out" from under the troops in their attempts to force a timetable for withdrawal into war funding bills. At the end of 2007, the weighted results found Republicans making up 44% of the military population, as compared to 17% calling themselves Democrats.


Figure 2. Source: Military Times annual surveys, 2003-2007;
weighting done by the author using Department of Defense personnel data

The Military Vote in 2008

How did these trends extend to military voting behavior in 2008? Let's consider two potential data sources. First, we can look at the Military Times 2008 election survey, weighted to correct for the demographic distortions in the subscriber base. Among active-duty respondents, the weighted results show a slightly closer contest than was originally reported: 60% favored McCain, 29% favored Obama, and 11% were undecided or favored someone else. Obama still trailed by a 2:1 ratio, but these same respondents reported that in 2004, they voted nearly 4:1 in favor of George Bush over John Kerry. Although the military vote almost certainly still favors Republicans for president, the gap has clearly narrowed.

It is important to note that the demographic weighting done here does not render the Military Times poll data fully representative of the active-duty population as a whole. It does make the sample demographically representative, at least along the dimensions I have included, but there is no way to tell with the data available what other factors may exist that are a) correlated with political attitudes; b) correlated with a person's propensity to subscribe to the Times newspapers or to respond to the survey; and c) that are not accounted for by the demographic characteristics included. It is the case, for example, that military donations reported to the FEC ran just about even between Obama and McCain, a result that suggests these survey findings, even after being weighted, may still underestimate Obama's support within the armed services. Of course, it could also indicate that Obama's supporters are simply more willing to give money but still constitute a distinct minority. We will have to await the results of better-designed surveys of the military population to find out.

In the meantime, one place to gauge how Obama actually did in relation to previous Democrats among military voters is in the election returns from military bastions around the country. I looked at returns in 29 of the 30 counties with the highest proportion of residents serving in the military as measured in the 2000 census. (Alaska does not report its returns by county, so one county is excluded from the analysis.) Figure 3 shows how Obama did in relation to Kerry's 2004 performance in these 29 counties, where the military percentage of the adult population ranges from 9.8% (in Hardin County, Kentucky) to 63.3% (in Chattahoochee County, Georgia).


Figure 3. Source: state election agencies and cnn.com.

The 45-degree line represents the divide between counties where Obama outperformed Kerry (in the upper left) and where he underperformed against Kerry (in the lower right). In all but one of the top 29 military counties, Obama's share of the two-party vote was higher than Kerry's, and by an average of over 6 points. Nationwide, Obama outperformed Kerry by 4.4 percentage points (Kerry received 48.8% of the two-party vote; Obama got 53.2%). This means that in the military bastions of the country, the counties most dominated by military personnel, Obama not only gained over Kerry's 2004 totals, but he improved on them in these areas even more than he did in the country as a whole. Although Obama still fell well shy of a majority in these counties (achieving 42.6% of the two-party vote, on average), the strong performance of a relatively young and inexperienced Democrat running against a decorated Republican war hero is highly suggestive that military allegiance to the Grand Old Party is on the wane.


tom brady:

Actually, what it suggests is that voters in the military responded much as voters everywhere did to the declining economic conditions and general overall disapproval of Bush's presidency - by boosting their support for the Democratic candidate by about 3% with a corresponding drop in support for the Republican candidate, relative to the 2004 results. But one can hardly claim that military allegiance to the Republican party is on the wane after one election where the fundamentals clearly favored the Democrat.



tom brady,

You're right that it's important to compare any Democratic gain among a subgroup to the overall gain in the population if we want to know whether Obama actually outperformed the level we would expect from the general pro-Democratic tide. In fact, though, that is what is shown above. Obama bested Kerry's share of the two-party vote in these counties by 6.3 points on average, not the Democratic-minus-Republican spread. Nationally, Obama outperformed Kerry in the Democratic share of the two-party vote by about 4.4 points, so in these counties, his gain over Kerry was about 50% more than we would expect if they perfectly matched the national average gain (and the p-value of the difference between a 6.3-point average gain and a 4.4-point average gain is .002). Of course, this is not a perfect comparison, because the gain in the national popular vote won't match exactly the average county-level gain, but the numbers from 2000 to 2004 suggest that these two quantities should be pretty close to each other (Kerry lost about 2.05 points against Gore in the county-level average, about 1.51 points in the national tally).

If we look at the military counties in terms of the Dem-Rep spread, we reach the same conclusion as above. Obama lost these counties by an average of 14.9 points in 2008, while Kerry lost them by an average of 27.4 points in 2004. So, on the difference, Obama picked up 12.5 points over Kerry in the top military counties, as compared to a national pick-up of about 9.2 points (+6.7 points in 2008 compared to -2.5 points in 2004).

Still, clearly, Republican presidential candidates outpace Democrats in these counties. The point is that the margin here has fallen significantly, and by a significantly larger proportion than happened in the country as a whole. Particularly when we consider McCain's personal military heroism and his long-established bona fides with the military community as compared to Obama's lack of military service, the fact that Obama made this type of gain in these counties should be seen as real evidence suggestive of a shift in military attitudes. We'll have to wait to see if this shift becomes a durable trend or a one-time blip.



As an FYI, in the National Student Mock Elections, the DoD schools in the Pacific and Europe voted for Obama.



Aloha Peter: A fantistic piece of research and follow-up. I was part of a team effort on the "D" side looking to increase the vote with the proper message with the Veteran, Active Duty voter and family vote. For me the research proved stronger and exciting to watch change in the Military Hospitals in key states. Tripler, Ft. Sam, Walter Reed, etc..

The question I asked of myself? "Where in this population can I find "All Possible equations?"...The Military Hospitals proved a stronger source of targeted polling. The Veteran, The Retired, Guard, Reserved. All ages, all education levels, all parties meet at the Hospital. The staffing truly provided a "Hearsay Factor" worth a +-. In fact it broke down to "If your were Army or Navy you most likely would vote......" Its was Branch-Specific as well! GOTV calling in swing-states to veterans proved a strong pivot in direction with clear messages that crossed all branches...Health Care and Research, Equipment and National Security Diplomancy.

Mahalo to you and the contributors. jim



This survey is not a representative sample of the active U.S. Military. The weighting performed here is not similar to other national surveys because the initial survey is a non-probability sample. Unless polling is about turning water into wine, I don't get the point of this analysis.



As acknowledged by the author, the Military Times survey is not based on a representative sample. Contrary to the authors contention, weighting these results is different from traditional weighting of other national surveys because the initial survey is based on a non-probability sample. How can a poor sample be made useful by weighting?


Post a comment

Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.