<< The Body Politic

Understanding the “veteran vote”

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Writing last week for The Huffington Post, Jason Dempsey, a career infantry officer in the U.S. Army and author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relationstakes a look at just what constitutes the “veteran vote”–and whether there really is such a thing.

He writes:

Someone casually reading the news would have the right to be confused over seemingly contradictory stories on the political preferences of military service members and veterans. According to Gallup, “Veterans Give Romney Big Lead Over Obama,” while Reuters claims that “Weary Warriors Favor Obama.” Both are true. Understanding why will help dispel some stereotypes about the military while also highlighting that we are in the midst of a generational shift in military attitudes.

The bulk of America’s veterans come from older generations, when the draft was in force and military service was the norm and not the exception (at least among white males). Therefore there is a high correlation between being a veteran and being a white male over the age of 65. So most discussions of ‘veterans’ are necessarily discussions of older white males and it should come as no surprise that this group leans Republican, although that would not make for much of a headline.

Given that fewer than 1 percent of Americans currently serve in the military and that the proportion of veterans in the population declines precipitously for those under 60 it is understandable that few national surveys capture the opinions and attitudes of younger veterans and active service members. The resulting lack of information on this group has led many to assume that the attitudes of young veterans and service members can be extrapolated from those of older veterans.

However, my study of the active-duty Army, plus analysis of other surveys over the last eight years indicate there are key differences between veteran cohorts and that the opinions of service member[s] may be undergoing a generational shift. […]

Among the youngest service members and veterans in the survey, those ages 18 to 25, there is nearly an even split in party identification with 36 percent identifying themselves as Democrats and 41 percent as Republicans. The advantage is still obviously to the Republican Party, but the gap is significantly closer among the young than it is with older veterans, who average a 30 percent to 48 percent split between Democrats and Republicans, respectively. However, when IPSOS/Reuters asked respondents who they would vote for if the election were held today, the gap in vote preference for the youngest generation of service members and veterans closes even further, with 39 percent and 40 percent choosing Obama and Romney, respectively.


In the long run this is good news, as it should reduce some of the perceived distance between members of the military and the public they serve. But in the short term it does raise risks to the military’s reputation for apolitical service as both parties are likely to increase outreach efforts in an attempt to claim the prestige of the military vote. The active force, constrained by law and institutional custom, can be expected to stay out of the race. However, there may be greater temptation for veterans to enter the fray, claiming to represent the views of the military in the general election. It is therefore essential that Americans have a better understanding of the attitudes of veterans and service members, and to recognize that there is no monolithic ‘military vote’.

Read the rest of the article here.