Military veterans are mostly old men and, in aggregate, have attitudes characteristic of old men. Active-duty soldiers are different.

by Andrew Gelman on August 8, 2012 · 2 comments

in Public opinion

Jason Dempsey 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. . . .

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.

Unfortunately in Gallup’s report on the veteran population they only compare their sample of veterans with adult men in general, which provides an insufficient control for age given the differences in the median age of the veteran population and the larger population of non-veteran adult males. . . .

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. . . .

However, my [Dempsey’s] 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 may be undergoing a generational shift. With its American Mosaic poll, IPSOS/Reuters is making a concerted effort to survey this population in the 2012 election cycle. . . .

When studying the active-duty Army in depth, I [Dempsey] found that on most social issues and questions of how the government should spend money, the attitudes of service members largely tracked those of the civilian population. More importantly, members of the Army appear to develop their outlook on social and political issues independent of military service and will often default to partisan cues on many of the political questions of the day. . . .

This raises the question of why the military has been seen as reliably Republican for so many years. This appears to be because of a loose cohort effect whereby the political environment during the formative years around the time a person begins military service shapes political party identification in a lasting way, particularly among military officers. . . .

Even when controlling for age, race and gender, whether or not a veteran is currently serving is a significant indicator of positive approval ratings for President Obama. This means that while older generations of veterans remain solidly Republican, new veterans and young service members have started their careers with, and will most likely maintain, a more balanced outlook towards partisan politics.

Perhaps another reason for the perception of the military as reliably Republican is that, as Dempsey reported a few years ago, military officers are much more Republican compared to enlisted personnel. And it is the officers whom (I assume) we are more likely to hear from in the news media and in lobbying groups.

Also relevant, I think, is the history of politically active and influential conservative veterans’ organizations such as the American Legion.

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