For instance, in Georgia, Trump alleged without evidence that thousands of military mail-in ballots are “missing,” as if counting such ballots would automatically shift the state’s vote toward him. And in Michigan, the campaign submitted one anonymous poll worker’s affidavit alleging, with no evidence, that too many military mail-in ballots were marked for Democrats. Even before Election Day, the president made much about an incident in Pennsylvania where nine military mail-in ballots were apparently discarded, falsely claiming that they were all marked “Trump.”
Leaving aside the allegations, is the underlying assumption correct: that members of the military surely and overwhelmingly voted Republican?
No. Here are three reasons we shouldn’t be surprised if many did in fact vote for Biden — as exit polls suggest they did.
The military is increasingly diverse
Americans tend to view the military as a homogenous and strongly conservative voting bloc. Overall, the military has grown increasingly conservative since 1975, when it became an all-volunteer force. But polls also show that military veterans identify as Republicans at roughly the same rates as the U.S. at large, accompanied by fewer Democrats and more independents. Polls of active-duty personnel show they are conservative, but not overwhelmingly so.
This balance may be shifting given recent demographic changes in military personnel. Over the past decade, increasing numbers of women, Black and Hispanic or Latino Americans have joined the services. Those segments of the population tend to lean Democrat. Although the officer corps remains overwhelmingly White and male, even that group has not fully identified with Republicans.
For example, a 2018 Military Times poll of active-duty military personnel found that most respondents reported either very favorable or very unfavorable views of the president, with fewer reporting more moderate feelings. While “very unfavorable” respondents outnumbered “very favorable” among both men and women, a far smaller proportion of women — smaller by 21 percentage points — reported any favorable rating than did men.
In other words, the military is not as uniformly conservative as many believe. And while active-duty personnel lean conservative as a whole, various demographic groups within the military hold different opinions, much as civilian demographic groups differ.
People join the military for a variety of reasons, and not just because they hold conservative beliefs
Many Americans assume that people join the military for reasons often associated with conservative views, like support for the military or conceptions of patriotism and honor. However, people join the military for many, highly varied reasons.
One of the strongest predictors of who will serve is family background. Those with family who served are more likely to join. But other motivations abound. While many are motivated to serve out of a sense of duty and a belief that military service is honorable, a survey of junior enlisted Army personnel revealed that they are equally — if not more — likely to cite occupational benefits such as pay, travel opportunities and job security.
While Republicans remain more likely to enlist than Democrats overall, these diverse motivations further undercut the narrative that members of the military would have been likely to vote in lockstep for Trump. Indeed, recent polls suggested that career military personnel disapprove of the Trump administration and were leaning toward Biden.
The military values its professional military norms
The higher you go in the military, the more its members care about upholding professional norms in which civilians command the armed forces and military leaders stay out of politics. Many in the military have been asking the president to stop treating the services as political tools because doing so undermines their valued norms of staying above the political fray.
Scholars of civil-military relations have been warning about what’s lost when Trump uses the military as a political prop, threatening the public perception that the military is an apolitical or nonpartisan institution. Although Democrats have also been guilty of politicizing the military, Trump has been very open about claiming that the military rank and file “love” him, as if to borrow public respect for the military to gain political support.
This summer, Trump had Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appear with him after Trump had Park Police use tear gas against Lafayette Square protesters. Many retired military officials criticized Milley, who later apologized. Nevertheless, the Trump campaign showed Milley in a political advertisement, reportedly without the general’s consent. Current and former members of the military objected that such acts violated the military’s nonpartisan identity and could further erode the line carefully drawn between civilian control and the military’s determined political neutrality.
Many in the military are similarly unhappy with the fact that the administration has interfered in matters traditionally controlled by military leaders. For instance, Trump pardoned or offered clemency to three service members charged with or convicted of war crimes in military trials. In addition, the president rescinded medals the Navy had awarded to prosecutors and overrode the Navy’s top admiral to restore convicted Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s rank. Legal experts warned that such interference could be perceived as threatening the military justice system. Commanders prize their control over personnel decisions — such as who merits a promotion and how to mete out punishments — as vital to maintaining good order and discipline.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Trump lost support among veterans and active-duty personnel. While exit polls showed that the military and veterans nationally favored Trump over Biden 52 percent to 45 percent, Trump’s margin dropped 20 points from his 61 percent (to Clinton’s 34 percent) of their vote in 2016.
Danielle Lupton (@ProfLupton) is associate professor of political science at Colgate University and the author of “Reputation for Resolve: How Leaders Signal Determination in International Politics” (Cornell University Press, 2020).
Max Z. Margulies (@mzmargulies) is an assistant professor and director of research at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed in this article are personal, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Military Academy or any other department or agency of the U.S. government.