Editor's note: This is the first in a series examining the views of military service members ahead of the presidential election.
If American military personnel alone were selecting the next president, the contest would be a dead heat between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, according to an exclusive new survey by Military Times and Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
Conducted in September, it is the first scientific breakdown of voting preferences among service members, and includes more than 2,200 responses from active-duty troops. And it shows a very different race than the one playing out on the broader national stage.
Among the entire military force, Trump leads Johnson 37.6 percent to 36.5 percent, within the study’s 2 percent margin of error. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton trails as a distant third-place choice, with only 16.3 percent of troops' support.
Green Party candidate Jill Stein received 1.2 percent support while other third-party and write-in options received 3.2 percent.
About 5 percent of respondents indicated they do not plan to vote given the likely choices on the ballot this year.
Perhaps most notably, there is a sharp split between enlisted personnel and the military's officer corps, which directs day-to-day operations and implements policy. Among the officers surveyed, Johnson is the clear choice, commanding support from 38.6 percent of respondents. Clinton actually outpaces Trump in that group, with nearly 28 percent support for the former secretary of State compared to the New York business mogul’s 26 percent.
The Military Times-IVMF survey was launched the same day Johnson flubbed a question related to Syria during a televised MSNBC appearance, where he appeared not to know the city of Aleppo, a key site in the country’s civil war and refugee crisis. It appears, however, that the mistake did not dissuade many military members from offering their endorsement of him.
“These are the worst two [major party] candidates we could possibly have,” said one Army captain who says he's supporting Johnson. The officer withheld his name out of concern it could be seen as politicking in the ranks. “We deserve better as the American people and should expect better.”
Such sentiment is consistent with a Military Times reader survey conducted in July ahead of the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Though an unscientific sampling of the career force, those results showed strong distaste for Trump and Clinton alike.
Of those surveyed in the new Military Times-IVMF poll, 85 percent said they were dissatisfied with Clinton as the choice for the Democratic presidential nominee, including 35 percent of those who plan to vote for her nonetheless. On the other side, 66 percent said they were dissatisfied with Trump as the Republican pick, including 21 percent of those who plan to vote for him.
More than 68 percent of respondents described Trump’s temperament as poor. More than 87 percent said the same about Clinton’s honesty and truthfulness. Only 18 percent rated Clinton’s ability to handle national security as good or very good, and only 27 percent rated Trump’s ability the same way.
“We're all doomed to have a president that the majority of the nation disapproves of, one way or another,” said one Army sergeant.
Johnson's standing within the military has only risen since then. But the former governor of New Mexico is struggling to stay relevant in the national political conversation.
Recent polls have shown him receiving around 10 percent of the vote, and the Commission on Presidential Debates last week announced he will not be invited to the first presidential debate on Monday.
Clinton leads most national polls over Trump but by a slim margin.
Nick Armstrong, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families' senior director for research and policy, said the results show a substantial amount of diversity and independence among military voters, despite a stereotype of them being reliable Republican backers.
“You can’t treat this group as a monolith,” Armstrong said. “The military itself is a very diverse institution, so we’d expect the variety of political viewpoints to follow that.”
While security and foreign policy have played a major role in the presidential campaign so far, the military vote is unlikely to be a major factor on the national stage. Active-duty troops and reservists compose about 1 percent of the national voting population.
However, the military could be a key factor in swing states such as Florida and Virginia, where the ratio of military voters is higher and state polls show close races. Many of those troops will be casting ballots for a new commander in chief toward whom they have — at best — mixed emotions.
'A LOT OF FRUSTRATION OUT THERE'
The Military Times-IVMF survey was launched one day after the nationally televised Commander-in-Chief Forum, a military focused town hall held in New York City on Sept. 7. The event featured only Trump and Clinton responding to questions from veterans. Johnson was not invited, eliciting widespread criticism from his backers within the nation's veterans community.
About 27 percent of respondents said they watched the event, hosted by NBC and the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, but of those only one in 10 said it changed their opinion of the presidential race. Less than 1 percent said it changed how they plan to vote this fall.
Recent controversies involving both major party candidates appear to carry more weight for potential military voters.
Approximately 90 percent of troops surveyed oppose Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business during her time at the State Department. About 60 percent opposed Trump’s handling of criticism from the Gold Star parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq.
“There is a lot of frustration out there now,” said the IVMF's Armstrong. “At the end of the day, all of these service members are thinking, ‘Do I trust this person as commander in chief?’”
Between Sept. 8 and 15, Military Times and IVMF conducted a voluntary, confidential online survey of U.S. service members. The questions focused on the nation's current political climate, the 2016 presidential election and other relevant issues.
The survey received 2,207 responses from active-duty troops. A standard methodology was used by IVMF analysts to estimate the weights for each individual observation of the survey sample. The margin of error for the presidential preference question is 2 percent. Other questions have slightly higher margins of error.
The survey audience was 85 percent male and 15 percent female, and had a mean age of 29 years old. The respondents identified themselves as 73 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 8 percent African American, 4 percent Asian and 8 percent other ethnicities. Respondents were able to select more than one race.
Responses came from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and unspecified sites overseas.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
George Altman covers military transition issues, education and post-separation employment and entrepreneurship for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.