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.
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
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.
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.