Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are said to be tussling over the fabled "military vote," and during this extraordinarily tedious election season, both have highlighted their fondness for all things military. Despite the efforts of both candidates to drum up military support, however, most commentators assume that the military "naturally" supports Republicans over Democrats. But will "the military vote" really favor Romney next week?
Romney hopes it will, and right-wing conspiracy theorists are convinced it will -- that's why they keep huffing and puffing about alleged Obama campaign attempts to suppress military votes, through methods as devious as neglecting to inform service members of their voting rights and supposedly burning military ballots.
But the Obama campaign has no reason to hope that service members don't vote, and Romney shouldn't count his chickens before they hatch. The military is far from a "natural" Republican voting bloc. Although the military appears to have skewed Republican in the 1980s and ‘90s , for most of the last century the politics of military personnel appear to have more or less mirrored the politics of the civilian population.
There's ample reason to believe that this is the case again today.
Yes, it's true that the televisions in the Pentagon food courts seem to be showing Fox News most of the time and that military personnel are drawn disproportionately from stereotypically "red" states. (In particular, the South, the Southwest, and the mountain states are over-represented within the military, while the Northeast is under-represented, relative to the overall population.) It's also true that the majority of surveyed military personnel self-identify as "conservative" in the annual and much-cited Military Times poll.
But this masks a far more complex reality, and one that may be just as likely to be favorable to Democratic hopes as to Republicans.
It's harder than you might think to get a solid handle on public opinion within the military. While the Defense Department collects and analyzes data on a thousand different things, from the average number of push-ups soldiers can do to the efficacy of using mules to transport equipment in the mountains of Afghanistan, it does not collect information on service members' political opinions.
Meanwhile, most polls that purport to show "military opinions" suffer from various flaws. The Military Times poll, for instance, relies on voluntary responses to surveys sent by email to subscribers -- and, as the editors note, a disproportionate number of the respondents are white, male, and older than average. What's more, many polls fail to differentiate between career military personnel and short-timers, or between officers and enlisted personnel.