View Full Version : Who you chose for president and why

10-08-04, 06:59 AM
October 11, 2004

Troops sound off
Who you chose for president and why

By Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writer

President Bush retains overwhelming support among the military’s professional core despite a troubled mission in Iraq and an opponent who is a decorated combat veteran, a Military Times survey of more than 4,000 readers indicates.
Bush leads Democratic Sen. John Kerry 73 percent to 18 percent in the voluntary survey of 4,165 active-duty, National Guard and reserve subscribers to Army Times, Navy Times, Marine Corps Times and Air Force Times.

Though the results of the Military Times 2004 Election Survey are not representative of the opinions of the military as a whole, they are a disappointment to Democrats who hoped Kerry’s record and doubts about Bush would give their candidate an opening in a traditionally Republican group with tremendous symbolic value in a closely contested election.

“For a long time, Kerry thought he had a chance to win the mantle and beat Bush on the issue of who could be the better commander in chief,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who has written extensively on civil-military relations and the political opinions of those in uniform.

Feaver said journalists and political analysts focus heavily on the opinions of military members because of a situation the nation hasn’t faced in more than 30 years: a heated presidential race amid a difficult and controversial war.

While the survey found some readers with doubts about Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, there was remarkable consistency in their views of the two candidates.

Officers and enlisted troops, active-duty members and reservists, those who have served in combat zones and those who haven’t, all supported Bush by large margins. And the survey hints that Kerry’s emphasis of his decorated service in Vietnam may have done more harm than good with those in uniform.

‘From the heart’

“It’s about honesty and integrity,” said Marine Sgt. Jason Jester, who was interviewed separately from the survey.

Jester, a recruiter from Winston-Salem, N.C., voted for Bush in 2000 and plans to do so again.

“He might not always make the right decisions, but I think the decisions he makes come from the heart.”

To conduct the survey, Military Times e-mailed more than 31,000 subscribers Sept. 15. They were invited to access an Internet site seeking their opinions on the presidential race and related issues. From Sept. 21 to 28, and before the first presidential debate on Sept. 30, a total of 2,754 active-duty and 1,411 reserve and Guard members took part.

The nature of the survey led experts to caution against reading the results as representative of the military as a whole.

Unlike most public opinion polls, the Military Times survey did not randomly select those to question. Instead, subscribers with e-mail addresses on file were sent an invitation. That means there is no statistical margin of error for the survey — so it’s impossible to calculate how accurately the results reflect the views of Military Times readers.

The surveyed group is older, higher in rank and more career-oriented than the military as a whole. Junior enlisted troops in particular are underrepresented in the group that responded.

But as a snapshot of the careerist core of the armed services, the survey holds little good news for Kerry, revealing a group with strong Republican leanings that the Democratic challenger has not shaken. Among the findings:

• Echoing previous Military Times polls and other research, the survey found a group with a close affinity for the Republican Party. About 60 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans, while 13 percent consider themselves Democrats and 20 percent independents.

Among the general population, pollsters usually find voters evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents.

• Just more than two-thirds said they voted for Bush in his 2000 victory, compared to 14 percent who voted for Al Gore. A large majority, 87 percent, said they voted in 2000.

• Though a solid majority said they attach some importance to the military backgrounds of the candidates, when asked specific questions about Bush’s Air National Guard service and Kerry’s Navy service in Vietnam, most said those records would have little impact on their vote.

• Still, among those with an opinion, Kerry’s military biography — a centerpiece of his campaign — may hurt with military voters as much as it helps. More than one in five respondents said his Vietnam service made them less likely to vote for him. Two-thirds said Kerry’s anti-war activities when he returned from Vietnam made them less likely to vote for him.

A much smaller group said Bush’s controversial service in the Texas Air National Guard made a difference. Among those who said his Guard service mattered, most said it would make them less likely to vote for the president.

• The results are not all good news for the president. Bush the candidate won significantly higher marks than Bush the commander in chief: Nearly one-quarter of those surveyed said they did not approve of the president’s handling of Iraq.

That’s a much lower rate than in the U.S. population, but it represents a striking willingness to question a commander in chief’s decisions. About 15 percent of those responding said they had no opinion or declined to reveal their opinion — results that experts such as Feaver said hint at a group privately questioning Iraq policy but unwilling to publicly express those doubts, even anonymously.

• About two-thirds of those surveyed listed Iraq as among the most important issues they will consider in casting their vote. Almost the same number said they consider the character of the candidates important, while just over half said they consider the condition of the economy important.

The Vietnam question

At the start of the campaign, a wide range of political analysts speculated that for the first time in decades, the Democratic candidate could have significant appeal for military voters.

Kerry brought a record of decorated combat service in Vietnam. Military and veterans groups have been harshly critical of several Bush administration policies on pay and benefits. And from the start of Bush’s term, senior military officials have chafed at the policies and attitudes of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The war in Iraq added to those questions. Political analysts increasingly wondered whether the mounting casualty toll, Democratic criticism of Bush’s policies, independent analysts’ pessimism about the war and public questioning of strategy by military and intelligence officials would drain Bush’s support among military members.

Kerry stepped up his criticism in recent weeks, painting the Bush administration as having rushed into a war without sufficient planning for its aftermath. But Feaver said Kerry has so far failed to capitalize on those doubts.

“An unfortunate side effect for Kerry of his new message on Iraq is that it reinforces his image as a flip-flopping commander in chief, which matters most to soldiers in wartime,” Feaver said.

And while much of the media coverage of the race has focused on the candidates’ Vietnam-era actions, Feaver said it’s the current war that’s foremost in the minds of those in uniform.

“I don’t think they’re questioning the patriotism of Kerry’s critique, and I don’t think they’re worried about its impact on the Iraqi enemies,” he said. “Where they’re worried is the impact on the American public, whether it will undermine public confidence in the war.”

In individual interviews, troops such as Lance Cpl. Jesse Bragdonsaid they have no illusions about what it will take to achieve Bush’s goals of a free and democratic Iraq.

“With the way the operations are going, I think they are needed. It may take 10 or 20 years to sort it out,” said Bragdon, a 21-year-old rifleman, who was running errands with several friends in downtown Oceanside, Calif., a few miles from Camp Pendleton’s main gate.

“I’m all for change, but I don’t think it’s the right time for change now,” said Spc. John Bass, 26, serving with 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq.

“I want to keep Bush in there because I want him to finish what he has started.”

Others see it differently.

“I think I might be leaning toward Kerry,” said Spc. Robert Anderson, 24, of the 145th Combat Support Company, an Army Reserve unit from St. Louis attached to the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq. “Maybe Kerry has got something new to bring to the table.”

“[Bush] might be the commander in chief, but I don’t agree with everything he’s done,” said Marine Pvt. Elizabeth Boran, 18, an avionics technician from Tampa, Fla., planning to vote in her first presidential election this fall.

The ‘civil-military problem’

While results of the Military Times survey may not be representative of the military as a whole, Feaver and other experts on civil-military relations question the wisdom of trying to seek survey data across the military, saying the attention likely to be drawn by the results could lead the general public to view the military as a partisan institution and poison the relationship between those in uniform and a potential Kerry administration.

“It underscores the civil-military problem of partisanship in wartime,” Feaver said.

Paul Rieckhoff, an Army veteran of Iraq who formed a nonpartisan group hoping to focus attention on the troops fighting that conflict, said the results could lead Americans to view the military as a monolithic Republican group.

“To assume they’re voting as a bloc is not giving them enough credit,” said Rieckhoff, whose group, Operation Truth, has been critical of several Bush administration policies.

“The Democratic Party has assumed [military members] will vote Republican and given up on them,” he said. “But both parties need to work for the military vote, and military personnel need to make both parties work for their vote.”

Staff writers Matthew Cox in Iraq, C. Mark Brinkley in Jacksonville, N.C., and Gidget Fuentes in San Diego contributed to this report. Gordon Trowbridge can be reached at (703) 750-8641 or gtrowbridge@atpco.com.