The Military and Presidential Endorsements

by Joshua Tucker on October 18, 2012 · 2 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Experimental Analysis

With news of Mitt Romney’s council of 300 retired general officers military advisory council in Foreign Policy yesterday, we are especially pleased to welcome the following guest post from Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp, and Peter Feaver.*

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Presidential campaigns increasingly have competed for high-profile military endorsements in recent years, but do these endorsements persuade voters?

In a Center for New American Security (CNAS) report released Monday, we find evidence that endorsements from military members and veterans disproportionately benefit President Obama. A summary of our study appeared in the New York Times; here we present more details.

In July, we conducted a survey experiment through YouGov. Prior to a standard vote choice question, we told a nationally-representative sample of more than 2,500 registered voters either that “according to recent reports, most members of the military and veterans” supported Obama, that most supported Romney or showed no endorsement. While these endorsements do not affect overall support levels, we did find evidence that they matter among pure Independent voters, especially those who pay limited attention to foreign policy news.

Independent voters who were told that military members and veterans supported Obama swung nine points in the President’s direction, and this treatment effect jumps to fourteen points among Independents who do not follow foreign policy news very closely. President Obama also received a small bump when Independent voters received a pro-Romney prompt, but this four point shift is not statistically significant.  Romney, by contrast, received no bump from endorsements compared with a control group that received no prompt (see Table 2 below). Military endorsements do not appear to influence partisans or partisan leaners.

We argue that endorsements from military members may disproportionately benefit Obama because voters view members of the military as disproportionately conservative. Consequently, a military endorsement for President Obama is surprising while an endorsement for Governor Romney is not. Moreover, an Obama endorsement also may counteract voters’ historical tendency to distrust Democrats on national security matters and solidify voters’ improving assessments of President Obama’s performance as Commander-in-Chief.

By statute and tradition, however, the military officially is a non-partisan institution. Nevertheless, we find some evidence that such endorsements may affect the trust and confidence voters place in the military that varies across partisan lines. For example, we find that Republicans who believe most members of the military affiliate with a political party are 10 percentage points more likely to report a great deal of confidence in the institution compared with those who do not think the military is political; however, Democrats who see the military as political are nine points less likely to have confidence in the institution compared with Democrats who do not think the military is partisan.

Even small increases in support can matter in a close election so we expect campaigns to continue to seek these endorsements, especially since they do not face immediate costs for doing so. Nevertheless, we believe that this practice may negatively impact the health of American civil-military relations in the medium to long term.  As a result, we suggest several steps that campaigns can take to help establish a taboo against the practice of military endorsements.  If campaigns believe that they will face reputational costs for using military surrogates, they may be willing to forego these endorsements in the future.

*The views expressed in this post are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of the United States Military Academy, the Army, or the Department of Defense.

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