WASHINGTON — More than three-fourths of troops believe the military has become more politically polarized in recent years, according to the results of a new Military Times poll of active-duty service members.
And that ideological divide is sure to be a major player at the voting booth next month.
About 64 percent of active-duty troops who took the anonymous survey said they are planning to cast a ballot in the congressional midterm elections in November, even though turnout among the general public in midterm elections usually falls below 50 percent. Only 7 percent of troops surveyed said they have no plans to vote this year.
The midterm elections could significantly shift the balance of power in the nation’s capitol, where Republicans currently hold control of the House, Senate and White House. They are also the latest benchmark in an increasingly fractured national political conversation which has seen escalating rhetoric from both sides.
“What this shows is that the military as an institution is not immune to that,” said Peter Feaver, a former adviser to former President George W. Bush and a political science professor at Duke University who has authored several books on military culture.
“It’s not an oasis or an island."
“And because of the value of the military as one of the few remaining apolitical institutions in America, there are concerns that the military may be drawn into these partisan fights," Feaver said.
Only 4 percent of troops surveyed believe the military has become less politicized in recent years.
Who to vote for?
National polling suggests that Democrats have a strong possibility of gaining control of the House and possibly even the Senate, moves that would have sweeping ramifications for President Donald Trump’s policy and political priorities.
Troops see that possibility as well. Nearly 74 percent of service members in the poll say they think the election will have a noticeable impact on the military, with 28 percent of those calling it a significant effect.
Among officers, that number is even higher: 89 percent of them see this election as influential for the armed forces.
But who troops will vote for is less clear. Almost half of those who responded to the poll said they do not affiliate with either major political party, continuing a trend in Military Times polls from recent years away from close ties to either Republicans or Democrats.
Despite that, roughly 45 percent of troops polled said they intend to back Republican candidates, even though less than a third say they are registered with the party.
Similarly, about 28 percent said they plan to vote for Democrats in the upcoming contests, even though only about one-fifth consider themselves members of that party.
Exit polling in the 2016 presidential election saw military members and veterans vote nearly two-to-one in favor of Republican candidates. The Military Times poll doesn’t show as big a disparity with troops this election cycle, but that could shift given that more than 26 percent say they don’t plan to support either party.
Troops surveyed had a 44 percent favorable view of Trump against a 43 percent unfavorable view. Women, minorities and officers had significantly lower opinions of his tenure, and men and enlisted service members offered more support.
The survey showed broader approval of Trump’s handling of military issues — 60 percent say that the military is in better shape now than when President Barack Obama was in office — but most think the military as a whole has weakened during their careers.
Almost 52 percent of troops surveyed said military readiness has weakened since their enlistment, and 12 percent of the total characterized it as declining significantly. Less than one-third believe readiness is better today than when they joined their service.
The midterm elections will be held on Nov. 6.
** Our methodology
Between Sept. 20 and Oct. 2, Military Times in collaboration with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University conducted a voluntary, confidential online survey of U.S. service members. The survey included 19 questions on service members’ opinion(s) related to the current political climate, policy and national security in the United States.
The survey received 829 responses from active-duty troops. The IVMF used standard methodology to estimate the weights for each individual observation of the survey sample. The margin of error for most questions was roughly 2 percent.
The survey audience was 89 percent male and 11 percent female, and had an average age of about 31 years old. The respondents identified themselves as 76 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African American, 5 percent Asian and 6 percent other ethnicities. Respondents were able to select more than one race.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.