American military personnel favor Donald Trump for president over Hillary Clinton by more than a 2-to-1 margin in an exclusive survey conducted by Military Times ahead of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, but a strong majority of respondents say they are wholly unimpressed with both candidates.
More than 61 percent indicated they are “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with Trump as the Republican nominee, including 28 percent of those who intend to vote for him. More than 82 percent said the same about Clinton, the Democratic nominee, with 30 percent of those pledging to vote for her voicing displeasure with the choice.
“This is the worst presidential election I have ever seen,” said one Air Force master sergeant who responded to the survey. “How in the world could we only have Hillary and Trump as the options?”
Such displeasure reflects the candidates’ high unfavorability ratings among the American public at large, despite both convincingly winning their party’s primary contests. More than half of registered voters in
a recent New York Times/CBS poll had negative views of Trump (55 percent) and Clinton (52 percent).
The survey, conducted July 5-8, elicited responses from 1,915 active-duty service members, reservists and National Guard personnel, all of them Military Times subscribers. The results, while not a scientific sampling of the military as a whole (see our methodology below), is representative of the services’ more senior and career-oriented members, those who run the military’s day-to-day operations and carry out its policies.
Among the Military Times survey respondents, 23 percent said they intend to vote for a third-party candidate. That’s almost 3 percentage points higher than those who said they’ll vote for Clinton, and about half the 49 percent who say they’ll back Trump. Of those,
Nearly 7 percent said they don’t intend to vote at all.
With four months remaining before the November election, these results raise troubling questions as to whether Trump or Clinton will win the military’s support as commander in chief. The vast majority of service members intend to cast a vote and believe everyone should do so. Nearly two-thirds of the troops surveyed (63 percent) said it would be wrong to abstain from voting. But the reality is many who will cast a ballot won’t be truly happy with their choice.
“Troops and veterans do believe in exercising their civic duties, and I think many of them will, despite the fact they’ve been given two terrible choices,” said John Noonan, an Air Force veteran and national security advisor for two prior Republican presidential hopefuls, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “I think if most troops did what she did (with classified emails), they’d be tossed in the brig. And his entire national security policy relies on an unrealistic border wall.”
All of Trump’s national security plans center around his often-cited accusation that “we don’t win with our military” under the Obama administration. His campaign says that includes the president’s fight against Islamic State militants, the Iran nuclear deal, shortfalls in military readiness and a perceived lack of respect from America’s allies.
His solution is to rebuild the military, calling a stronger fighting force the most important building block for U.S. national security and economic prosperity. The business mogul has lamented Obama’s post-war military manpower reductions, aging Air Force equipment and the Navy’s shrinking fleet.
It remains to be seen exactly how Trump will pay for his ambitious plans to revitalize the armed forces. Some funding would come from forcing U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to start covering a greater share of their own defense, his campaign says, or demanding they make direct payments to the U.S. in exchange for providing a military presence overseas.
Clinton’s campaign continues to argue that most of Trump’s foreign policy and national security promises amount to little more than one-liners void of any realistic strategic and budgetary planning. Her surrogates have also savaged him for being too unstable to be trusted with control of the military. Last month, Clinton said Trump “is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes — because it’s not hard to imagine [him] leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”
Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail has raised concerns within the Pentagon as well. He has called NATO obsolete, argued for banning Muslim immigrants, and at one point suggested that as commander in chief he would advocate the use of torture. Top military officials, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, have been forced to respond, doing so carefully and often indirectly, mindful that they cannot be seen as influencing the election process.
About 64 percent of troops surveyed by Military Times said they believe Trump has a poor temperament. Even among those likely to vote for him, 35 percent said they have concerns about whether his personality is too volatile for the job.
Clinton’s national security and foreign policy promises revolve around “defending America and its core values,” a direct attack against Republican rivals who throughout the primary campaigns suggested the Obama administration should be more aggressive in its response to terrorists and unfriendly nations, including Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Obama has never been hugely popular with career military personnel, according to past Military Times subscriber surveys, but his approval among the force has tanked in recent years as he’s pushed through controversial social changes while seeking to rein in defense spending and avoid large-scale military commitments overseas. On the campaign trail, Clinton has voiced like-minded support for the president’s policies and strategies.
Her website promises “the best-trained, best-equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known.” However, there’s no specific indication of any inherent weakness in how the force is constructed or maintained today.
As Obama’s former secretary of state, much of Clinton’s plans include her past diplomatic work, and belief that global coalitions and interdependency is more important than appearing more powerful than any single adversary.
Trump staffers call that past work a legacy of deceit and failure. The business mogul has labeled her “the most corrupt person” ever to run for the presidency, and questions her honesty frequently on the campaign trail.
For the last year, Republican party officials and Trump campaign staffers have been repeatedly hammering the twin scandals of Clinton’s role in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
Those scandals have taken a toll. More than 83 percent of troops surveyed in the Military Times poll said they question her honesty and trustworthiness. Among likely Clinton voters, 26 percent still labeled her as dishonest.
Among the troops who participated in Military Times’ survey, partisan affiliation appears to be the most decisive indicator for whom they’ll back. About 75 percent of those who identified as Democrats said they’ll back Clinton, and about 77 percent of Republicans said they’ll vote for Trump.
Those who identified as Independents favored Trump by a 34 percent to 21 percent margin, but more than 44 percent said they wouldn’t choose either. Outside experts say that after a year of campaigning, it may be impossible for the major party candidates to convince Independents to believe in them.
“It’s clear that defense and foreign policy will be front and center in the campaign,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “So both candidates want to express a vision of what their view of national security should be. But we saw with [2008 Republican presidential candidate] John McCain that even if you have one, it might not make a difference.”
In that election, economic issues and the housing crisis dominated the final months of a presidential campaign that had focused heavily on U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in earlier months.
In the current campaign, much of the day-to-day national security message has been reduced to campaign fights over how to deal with ISIS. Trump has threatened to “bomb the sh– out of them,” while Clinton has focused on coalition building and supporting local forces to deal with the threat.
Trump also has tied the issue of national security to immigration policy. During a speech in June after the ISIS-inspired mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, he pledged to “suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies until we fully understand how to end these threats.”
Eaglen said the rhetoric in both cases is more likely to impress voters outside the military than those in the ranks. “They still care about pocketbook and safety issues,” said Eaglen, who has consulted with Trump’s campaign. “Benefits and pay are what is going to sway those families. Larger readiness promises aren’t going to be the issue.”
Mieke Eoyang, vice president of Third Way’s National Security Program, thinks Clinton may be able to convince some troops that she’d be a more stable, professional commander-in-chief as election day nears.
“She has her record, and some notable Republicans have said they’d feel comfortable with her,” Eoyang said. “But I think anything Trump does between now and the general election is window dressing. He has built a record out there too, and I think the concerns about what he has said will just grow.”
But Eoyang added that winning the military vote may not be on either campaign’s immediate wish list. Troops and families still make up a small percentage of the overall electorate. “And that population,” she said, “has never been decisive in past elections.”
“I think in key swing areas like Virginia Beach, Florida, Colorado, they could be important, and [Clinton’s] scandals could really hurt her,” he said. “Trump talks like a first sergeant, blunt, and the troops like that.
“But,” he added, “he’s utterly clueless on national security strategy.”
Noonan was part of a team of operatives that earlier this year attempted, unsuccessfully, to recruit former Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to mount a third party bid for the White House . Barring a surprise new option, he sees little chance for any candidate to become troops’ consensus choice.
In the Military Times survey, more than 23 percent said they’d back a third party candidate. Among the write-in suggestions were Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson (13 percent of the overall survey population), Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (3 percent) and Mattis (1 percent).
But Mattis and other candidates recruited for an November bid have found the prospects too difficult for success. Johnson finished with less than 1 percent of the national vote during his 2012 presidential bid.
Noonan said he’ll be in the voting booth in November, but to back local Republicans in key congressional and state contests, not the main ticket.
“I think voting is important, so I’ll show up, focus on those other races, and just write a name in [for president],” he said. “I don’t feel guilty about not voting for either of them.”
Between July 5 and July 8, Military Times conducted a voluntary, confidential survey of subscribers who include verified active-duty service members, reservists and National Guard personnel. More than 63,000 subscribers received e-mail invitations to participate. In total, 1,915 respondents completed the survey.
The sample is not a perfect representation of the military as a whole; it over-represents officers and noncommissioned officers, and under-represents junior enlisted personnel. However, it is representative of the more senior and career-oriented members of the force who run the military’s day-to-day operations and carry out its policies.
The voluntary nature of this survey, the dependence on email and the characteristics of Military Times readers may affect the results. Statistical margins of error commonly reported in opinion polls that use random sampling can’t be calculated for this survey.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at
George Altman covers military transition issues, education and post-separation employment and entrepreneurship for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.