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Whose Military Vote?

By Peter D. Feaver
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page A23

Pundits have long speculated that the Democrats were making strong inroads with a constituency hitherto notoriously resistant to their appeal: the military. Since Gen. Wesley Clark threw his hat in the presidential ring, reporters have chased the "military vote" story, each new media report sprinkled with anecdotes about troops who questioned the Iraq war or who drew trenchant comparisons between the Vietnam combat valor of John Kerry and President Bush. Surely Bush is in trouble, and, in a close election, perhaps the military vote might swing the outcome as it did in Florida 2000, only this time for the Democrats. Even Kerry joined the bandwagon in the first presidential debate, citing individual military supporters he met on the campaign trail (the only voters Kerry mentioned that night).

We now have fairly compelling evidence, in the form of a Military Times survey of its readership (primarily career military officers and enlisted personnel), that reports of the demise of Bush's popularity were premature. By an astonishing 72 to 17 percent margin, the active-duty military personnel who took the survey favored Bush over Kerry (Guard and Reserve respondents favored Bush, 73 to 18 percent). Frankly, the margin greatly exceeds anything that I or any other analyst had expected.

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To be sure, the survey method is tilted in Bush's favor, because it underrepresented the short-termers and junior enlisted personnel who would presumably be more Democratic (and thus more pro-Kerry). But the poll cannot be dismissed on technical grounds. The military is not captured in sufficient numbers by regular polls to say anything meaningful, and it is very difficult to reach the military in a targeted political survey. The Military Times readership is more reflective of career military people who at least entertain the idea of serving the 20 years needed to earn full retirement benefits, and previous surveys have established that this group tends to be more Republican. However, survey methods cannot account for a spread of 55 points. If the groundswell for Kerry claimed in earlier news reports was happening, it would have shown up here.

Despite an extraordinary effort to woo the military, then, the Democrats still have not overcome their traditional tone-deafness when it comes to civil-military relations. Kerry's scorched-earth critique of the Iraq war may excite the base, but it alarms the military. The point is not that members of the military are blinded to mistakes or difficulties in Iraq. Rather, the point is that Kerry has unwittingly revived two specters that haunt the military.

The first is the ghost of Vietnam, which to the military (rightly or wrongly) means "fighting a war that domestic critics have made unpopular to the American public." Kerry is long on critique and short on what he would do differently from, or even better than, Bush. What the troops probably hear most loudly is red-meat rhetoric like "grand diversion," "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time," and other statements likely to undermine public resolve to see the war through to a successful conclusion.

The second ghost is President Bill Clinton as commander in chief, which to the military (rightly or wrongly) means an indecisive leader who wavers in response to shifting political winds. Kerry may believe that he has never changed his position on the Iraq war, but it is doubtful the military buys that spin.

Of course, the military vote is not large enough to decide the election except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, and then every other subgroup is decisive, too. Both campaigns, however, have been wooing the military not because the fighting forces matter on Election Day but for the symbolic value of their support for the campaigns as a whole. Put another way, the preelection news stories about growing military support for Kerry are far more valuable than the actual votes themselves.

Indeed, this is precisely why we should lament either side dragging the military into the middle of a partisan food fight, and why even conducting or commenting on such a poll is problematic. As mad as Bush supporters would be on Nov. 3 if Kerry wins, for most of them it will not be a life-or-death issue. Military people are professionals and will keep their pledge to be willing to risk their lives, even if they think the American people have made a huge mistake in the election.

So I worry about poll findings that show such a large tilt in favor of one candidate because they risk politicizing the military further, especially when it rebuts so decisively a central theme in one candidate's marketing campaign. I worry also because of the reaction I have gotten from Democrats when informed of the poll results -- there's an abrupt shift midstream from crowing about how the military would turn on Bush this year to decrying the partisan Republican tilt of the military. The Democrats have wooed the military more ardently (though perhaps not more wisely) than ever before. Does the fury of a spurned suitor prepare someone to be a good commander in chief in wartime?

The writer is a professor of political science at Duke University and author of "Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations."


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