A recent story in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg reported that President Trump made disparaging remarks directed at American troops killed or wounded in action. These alleged remarks implied a contempt by the president for our military. Much of the condemnation has focused on the hypocrisy of an alleged draft-dodger saying them and how they could affect his ability to function as commander-in-chief. That’s fair and I don’t have much to add. However, another area of debate over these comments centers on how it might affect Trump’s political support from the military in the impending election. I do have some thoughts here. The unstated premise of this punditry is that the U.S. military is a voting block and that it is overwhelmingly conservative. That has not been my experience and the data is mixed. According to U.S. Department of Defense data the current U.S. active duty military represents 0.4% of the U.S. population and all living veterans (about 19 million) represent less than 7% of the country. Numerically 7.4% is not much of a voting block — but work with me.
A few words of explanation on the structure of military personnel, it will provide useful context later. At the broadest level our military members come in two types, officer and enlisted. Officers make up about 20% of the force. The enlisted corps can be further divided into junior enlisted and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Officers serve via a commission from the president as commander-in-chief. The number of commissions for every rank in every service is controlled by congress. This is designed to prevent the president from becoming a military dictator. Good idea. Commissions have no expiration date but are subject to internal DoD regulations requiring advancement, i.e. you have to get promoted or your commission will end — up or out. To apply for a commission, you need a 4-year college degree. To realistically compete for promotion beyond the junior officer ranks you need a post-graduate degree. Enlisted members can join after turning 18 years old. They sign enlistment papers which are essentially an employment contract for a set number of years. In addition to pay they earn federal benefits they can use toward college or other training after their service. If they decide to make the military a career they eventually transition to the senior enlisted ranks of NCO. NCO’s serve as an enlisted officer without a commission from the president. NCOs are the backbone of all the services.
As you would expect from an all-volunteer force that sources from the general population, the demography of the U.S. military tracks fairly closely with the U.S. population — except for gender. According to the Department of Defense’s 2018 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community the force is roughly 80% male although the number of women serving is steadily rising — up almost 8% since 2000. The force is very young, 81% of the force is under 35 and 53% of enlisted members are under 25 (recall enlisted members make up 80% of the force). Regarding race and ethnicity, according to a 2019 Pew Research report, 41% of active duty forces identify as a racial or ethnic minority (U.S. average is 37%). For education all enlisted member have a high-school diploma or equivalent and 18% have an associate or bachelor’s degree. All officers have a bachelor’s degree (U.S. average is 32%) and 41% have post-graduate degrees (U.S. average is 13%). Veterans are a different picture. According to Pew Gulf War-era veterans (defined as serving between August 1990 and the present) are now the largest group at just over one-third followed by Vietnam-era vets. They are overwhelmingly male (91%) and white (77%). Veterans are also financially better off. Median income for veteran households is 20% higher than the U.S. average. You might think this makes them overwhelmingly conservative, but not so fast. A WSJ poll of the 2018 elections found veteran households voted 53% Republican and 45% Democratic.
What to make of this? The active force is young, diverse and well-educated but, at 0.4% of the population — tiny. As a group, veterans are orders of magnitude larger. They are whiter, older and male-er but their voting preferences indicate they are about as divided as the rest of the country albeit with a clear, but not overwhelming, preference for Republicans. As those currently serving become veterans the trend of greater diversity will follow. The take-away is, there is no “military vote.” Military demographics track with national demographics and where they diverge, they tend toward being more diverse and better educated. Taken together the active duty and veteran vote approaches a 50–50 split…just like the rest of the country. For the record, I don’t think Trump’s indefensible statements will move the needle among these voters. Like the rest of the country, their mind is made up — in both camps.