The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Recent veterans are more Republican than older ones. Why?

Phil Kirstein, a Vietnam War veteran, waits for U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a veterans roundtable discussion with the Truman National Security Project at the VFW Hall in Derry, New Hampshire November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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Military veterans matter in American electoral politics, both as candidates and as voters. In the 1970s, three-quarters of congressmen were veterans, but now only about 20 percent have served. About half of this country’s major party presidential candidates, from George Washington to today, have served in uniform.

Evidence from two experimental settings shows also that voters perceive veterans running for office differently than non-veterans under some conditions. For instance, voters see veterans running for office as more competent on national security and defense.

Veterans are also significant voters. They are more likely to vote than nonveterans; that’s true for Latinos and African Americas as well as for whites.

For years, veterans voted more or less in synch with non-veterans.  

So do veterans have any unifying political outlook? Recent exit polls suggest that veterans tilt Republican, but that does not tell the whole story. Both of us have examined this question in different ways in the past, and we have generally found that veterans are statistically indistinguishable from non-veterans. In recent decades, most veterans did identify and vote more with the Republican Party than did non-veterans–but that’s because they were older, whiter, and almost all male, not because of their time in the military. Older white men are more Republican, so to say that veterans skewed to the right was to say that older white men skew right.

During the 2004 presidential election, veterans turned away from Vietnam veteran John Kerry immediately after the infamous Swift Boat ad–but by Election Day, veterans voted no differently than did the overall electorate, controlling for demographics (and Latino veterans were particularly likely to support Kerry).

That seems to be changing. 

But that might be changing. Recent work by Jonathan Klingler and Tyson Chatagnier shows that by 2006, veterans held more conservative political views and tilted toward the GOP. Why? What can explain changes to veterans’ attitudes?

The answer cannot be the end of the draft. We’ve had an all-volunteer military since 1973, for more than 40 years. To try to get an answer, we analyzed the 2008 and 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study surveys to test whether veterans are political distinctive, focusing particularly on age and cohort in a paper presented at the recent Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces & Society conference.

We found that military service did move the needle to the right, even after controlling for age and other demographic factors. Veterans in general were more likely to vote for John McCain and Mitt Romney, more likely to call themselves Republicans, more likely to hold conservative positions on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, and more likely to dislike Obamacare. About half of non-veteran men voted for Obama, but only about 35 percent of male veterans voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

We do not believe the candidates’ military biographies explain this recent veteran tendency to vote for and identify with the Republican Party. McCain’s combat service during Vietnam as a U.S. Navy pilot and subsequent five-year imprisonment in Hanoi are well known. But the 2012 presidential election was the first since 1944 in which neither party’s candidate had military experience–and so veteran status wasn’t a factor. That suggests that veterans may vote Republican next year as well, despite the fact that each party is very likely to nominate a non-veteran candidate.

Young vets are more Republican than older vets.

A closer look at which veterans exhibit distinctive attitudes reveals that recent, younger veterans are more likely to be Republicans and vote for GOP candidates. We ran a statistical model that examined veteran attitudes and vote choice for each decade of age. While veterans in their 20s are not numerous—only about 6 percent of American men this age served—they are particularly likely to prefer and identify with Republicans.

We interpret these results with caution because cross-sectional survey data provide only a snapshot of public opinion, and it is difficult to nail down firm causes.

Could today’s veterans be more Republican because young conservatives are more likely to join the military? This kind of self-selection effect is unlikely to provide a full explanation because the reasons people join the armed forces are more complex than media narratives suggest. Young men (and women) join the armed forces for many personal, career, financial, and civic reasons beyond ideology or politics.

Is something new taking place within the military that is encouraging conservative views—or are service members becoming more conservative as they make the transition to civilian life? Or is this unique to the Obama elections or our growing party polarization?

Whatever the reason, we see that in the past two elections younger veterans are more Republican and more conservative. Political and civil-military analysts will want to keep an eye on this trend.

David L. Leal, University of Texas at Austin, is a professor of government with interests in Latino politics and policy, religion and politics, and military sociology. Jeremy Teigen, Ramapo College, is a professor of political science who studies elections, public opinion, the politics of place, and military veterans.