The Military and Presidential Endorsements

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.*


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.

2 Responses to The Military and Presidential Endorsements

  1. Keith Gaby October 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    A related question is the military experience of candidates (Ike likely didn’t need military endorsements) and how their veterans status, or lack of it, impacts the race. In recent times, contrary to historical example, it seems to be a liability to run for president as a war hero. Well, not really a liability, but they certainly lose a lot. And this year, for the first time since 1944, neither major party candidate has served in uniform. Recent history may explain why.

    George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, two decorated combat veterans, lost to Bill Clinton, who used a feint towards the National Guard to get out of fighting in Southeast Asia. George W. Bush, a stateside guardsmen, beat Al Gore and John Kerry, who both served in Vietnam. (Yes, Gore was a military reporter and yes, serving in the National Guard is an highly honorable way to serve America, but it was well known during the Vietnam War that getting into the Guard here in America was a way to avoid going to Vietnam.) The first President Bush did beat Michael Dukakis, who was only a peacetime grunt in Korea, but that was mostly on momentum created by Ronald Reagan — who shot propaganda films rather than Germans.

    So why have combat veterans lost so often in the last few decades? The longer answer is at:

  2. Jim Jensen November 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    I don’t believe a candidates military service means a great deal one way or another. I certainly do not believe having served in our armed forces is a negative in the minds of the voters. The endorsement of so many high ranking military officers for Romney is looked upon as support from this country’s strength. The best defense is a good offense, and a president needs the support of our military. A great many of our service personnel are looking for someone to lead them and make them proud. Someone they can respect.