The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iraq and Afghan vets are conservative. But, they’re not all Republicans.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the military is one of the most Republican and conservative institutions in the United States. That's only half true.

The current generation of military service members is more conservative than the public at large, for sure. But they are not much more Republican -- with nearly half identifying as political independents, according to a new poll of military service members from the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation.

Just over a quarter of the 2.6 million military members who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001 identify as Republicans, outnumbering by 10 percentage points those who identify as Democrats. That compares with the general public's 6 to 11 point Democratic tilt in Post-ABC polls last fall. Fully 47 percent of veterans are political independents, compared with 40 percent of the public. When pushed, however, military members lean more Republican than Democratic by a significant 45 to 33 percent margin, with 15 percent remaining truly independent. The general public tends to tilt slightly Democratic.

The better way to understand the political space that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans occupy is to look at it through an ideological lens rather than a partisan one. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tilt conservative, with 44 percent identifying as conservative and 29 percent as moderate. A December Post-ABC poll of the general public found an even split of 38 percent conservative and 38 percent moderate. Vets and the public are nearly identical in their liberal leanings; 20 percent for veterans to 19 percent for the public.

The rightward bent of military members can be partly explained by the demographic composition of the military, particularly those deployed to recent wars. The cohort of active and detached military members from the 9/11-era are 88 percent male and 49 percent Southern, groups that are generally more Republican and conservative than women and non-Southerners. Their youth -- 72 percent are under age 40 -- helps explain their political independence.

The gender gaps by party and ideology are sharp. Female vets are nearly twice as apt as men to be Democrats and liberal. Beyond the significant gender gaps, differences in partisanship among other groups are less pronounced. Differences are quite small among officers and enlisted personnel, for active members and detached as well as by military branch.

You can find detailed results for partisan identification among various groups within the military at our interactive polling page.