Guest Pollster | October 20, 2008
Today's Guest Pollster contribution comes from Jason Dempsey, who is an infantry officer assigned to the Army's 10th Mountain Division and the author of the forthcoming book, Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations. He also has an article on the political attitudes of military personnel in the most recent issue of the The New Republic. The views presented here are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.
While the veteran vote is not attracting as much attention as it did in 2004 it is still a salient election issue, and we could use more discussion of available data. For the most part, the most current available data is provided by the Military Times family of newspapers. [Note--does anyone know if NAES is attempting to do a focused military survey again this year?] However, the Military Times surveys have to be used for what they are: Surveys of subscribers to the Military Times papers (Army Times, Air Force Times, etc.) As such they are not representative of the entire military population. And we should note that they don't claim to be, although that is often lost in interpretations and use of the data.
Briefly, I'd like to address the methodology of the surveys and the ways in which these surveys can be useful, some trends revealed in these surveys since 2004, and some thoughts on the results of their 2008 election survey.
First off, I think the Military Times do a good job of explaining that these surveys are not representative (see here), even if the headlines and commentary resulting from these surveys often imply otherwise. As the crowd at Pollster.com is the type that likes the fine print I think this is a great venue for discussing the potential as well as the limitations of these surveys.
The survey in the news last week was this year's election-specific survey. In September the Military Times sent e-mails to about 69,000 subscribers. (They sent original messages to about 80,000, but many came back as undeliverable. Some of this should be expected, and appropriately discounted, given the high mobility of the active-duty military community, but it is not clear how many with invalid addresses were active as opposed to being retirees or in the Guard/Reserve). From this they collected responses from 4,515 retirees, 1,515 members of the National Guard and Reserves, and 2,982 active-duty members of the military (although of these 316 were left out of analysis because they were not registered or did not intend to vote). Of the active-duty respondents, 1,543 were in the Army. I limit analysis in my research, and here, to the active Army population within the surveys as I can appropriately compare this subgroup with the overall Army population. However, I think the discussion of the representativeness of the Army subsample probably applies equally to the other active-duty groups.
As with previous Military Times surveys the respondents in 2008 were disproportionately white, male and officers. The actual Army population is about 85% male, 14% regular commissioned officers (not including Warrant Officers), and 60% white. The active-duty members of the Army who responded to the Military Times poll were 90% male, 45% regular commissioned officers, and 71% white. Furthermore, the Army's junior enlisted ranks are dramatically underrepresented in the Military Times surveys. About 47% of the Army serves in the ranks of E-1 through E-4. These ranks comprise only 6% of the active Army population included in the 2008 Military Times survey. (The samples of each of the previous Military Times surveys are nearly identical in the degree to which they represent the active military population). Bottom Line: these surveys should in no way be used to assess aggregate attitudes across the force.
However, this does not mean that the Military Times surveys aren't valuable (that is far from the case). Rather, it highlights that interpretations of the Military Times survey results have often been inappropriately extrapolated to the entire military population.
These surveys can be useful in two ways. First, they can be useful as a gauge of opinion trends. While the results of these surveys might not present an accurate estimate of overall military attitudes in a given year, over time they reflect how the opinions of a portion of the military are shifting. By extension we might assume that the rest of the military is shifting to a similar degree, even if the starting point is not the same. (See the discussion of Robert Shapiro and Ben Page on 'parallel publics' in The Rational Public).
Secondly, if we limit analysis of the survey data to senior officers then the 'subscriber bias' is likely to be minimal, in that the attitudes of senior officers in the Military Times subscriber database are likely to be similar to the attitudes of senior officers generally. Whereas a junior soldier or officer who subscribes to the Army Times is likely to have a more careerist outlook than his or her peers, in that subscribing can be interpreted as an act of dedicated interest in the profession as a whole, the difference between subscribers and non-subscribers is likely to be more muted in the senior officer ranks.
Trends: 2003 to 2007
If one assumes these surveys can be useful as a gauge of opinion trends, if not a comprehensive view of aggregate attitudes, then the Military Times surveys do tell us something about military attitudes over time. I believe we can also view them as fairly accurate portrayals of the opinions of the subset of senior Army officers. Below are the results of what I found when parsing out the opinions of active-duty Army officers in the ranks of major and above (typically 10 to 20+ years of service) from the 2003 through 2007 Military Times annual surveys.
The single datapoints reflect the results from the Citizenship & Service: 2004 Survey of Military Personnel (Completed with Bob Shapiro and support from the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University. See here). The C&S Survey included a higher number of women and minorities and the resulting data was weighted to reflect the general Army population on the dimensions of rank, race/ethnicity, and gender. Notably, the results from comparing senior officer attitudes from the C&S Survey with the attitudes of senior officers in the Military Times survey show a pretty close match.
These Military Times survey results show that support for the Republican Party among senior members of the Army, the group most likely to identify as Republican, declined significantly between 2004 and 2006 before leveling off at about 49% in 2007. Also interesting is that the data show no corresponding change in support for the Democratic Party.
Because the Military Times did not conduct these surveys before 2003 we can't assess what this means historically, but we do have data from Ole Holsti's and James Rosenau's Foreign Policy Leadership Project surveys that were conducted every four years between 1976 and 1996. Looking at this data, the military is experiencing a shift comparable to what occurred between 1976 and 1980. During that period military leaders shifted decidedly toward the Republican Party. By the end of Carter's presidency the proportion of senior military leaders who identified with the Republican Party had increased by 13%. This data show a shift of comparable magnitude--only during this administration the military has begun to shift away from the Republican Party. Over the last three years the Military Times surveys have shown a decline in Republican Party identification of 14% among active-duty Army respondents and an overall decline of 13% among senior Army officers.Notes on 2008
Unfortunately the 2008 Military Times Election survey did not ask party affiliation. They did, however, ask respondents both who they planned to vote for during this election and who they voted for in 2004. Not exactly panel data, but this again offers an opportunity to assess shifts in attitude among survey respondents.
The primary headline to come out of the Military Times surveys was that 68% of respondents backed the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. However, lost in the analysis was a significant shift in support for the Democratic nominee. Looking at just the subset of active-duty members of the Army in the Military Times poll, 64% of these respondents reported voting for George Bush in 2004 and 15% reported voting for John Kerry. As for the 2008 election, 66% planned to vote for McCain while 25% reported planning to vote for Barack Obama.
There are two significant points to draw from these results. The first is the 10-point uptick in support for the Democratic candidate. While not indicative of a reversal of military preferences among officers, this increase in support for the Democratic candidate signals a significant shift in military opinion and indicates that military aversion to the Democratic Party may be on the wane.
A key discussion point from initial reports on the survey was that black members of the military overwhelmingly indicated support for Barack Obama, but looking at the demographics of those who reported shifting their preference to Barack Obama in 2008 reveals that this dynamic was not driven solely by minority respondents. Of those who shifted from Bush to Obama, 95% were male and 55% were white (n=79, again, I am only looking at active-duty Army respondents). Among those who voted for neither the Republican nor Democratic candidate in 2004 but were planning to vote for Obama in 2008, 77% were male and 39% were white (n=121). This indicates that the increased support for the Democratic presidential candidate among members of the Army is due to both a shift of the Army's traditional voting block away from the Republican Party as well as an infusion of new, predominantly minority voters into the Democratic column.
The second significant point to draw from these results is that McCain has been able to hold onto military votes at a time when the Republican brand is hurting nationally. He is holding a slightly higher portion of the senior officer vote than Bush did in 2004. This is probably not indicative of a shift back to 60% Republican Party identification among senior officers, but is probably due more to his own veteran status. Among active-duty Army respondents, 73% felt that the veteran status of the candidates was important in making the decision about who to vote for (32% felt it was 'very important'. Another 41% felt it was somewhat important.) I suspect that this explains a good portion of McCain's military support and that post-election assessments of the party identification of senior officers will be closer to the 2007 figures.
Finally, however, it must also be noted that comparisons with 2004 are problematic. As outlined by Jeremy Tiegen in his analysis of the veteran vote in 2004, the Swiftboat attack ads were successful in getting otherwise Democratic voters to vote for George Bush, so 2008 may be the 'norm' although, again, McCain's strong identification as a veteran further muddles analysis. Hopefully someone will attack the data and give us an answer after the election.
For those interested enough in military attitudes and polling to have read this far there will be more analysis of the attitudes of the active-duty Army (to include the enlisted ranks) in my forthcoming book Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations due from Princeton University Press in 2009.