The discovery of nine mail-in ballots sent by military members and discarded by someone in Philadelphia raises the quadrennial concern about the honest handling of military absentee ballots. The fact that all nine were reportedly votes for President Trump raises a very different question: Will most military members vote for Trump or Biden?
Can the soldiers support Biden? They are probably unaware of Biden’s frequent confusion and misstatements about the “endless wars” Trump has tried to end.
There are about 1.3 million men and women serving on active duty today. Military voter turnout in 2012 was about 58 percent, which was the same percentage as for the rest of the populace. Military turnout dropped to 46 percent in 2016, while the general population voter turnout was about 57 percent. In either event, the military vote was significant to the margin of victory.
In 2016, Trump reportedly won the votes of about 60 percent of those who have been in the military. Whether he does as well this year is probably dependent on factors that have nothing to do with a person’s current or past military background.
Neither Trump nor Biden has any military background. Both found ways to avoid the draft in the Vietnam War by Biden’s student deferments and Trump’s medical excuses. There is no military record, far less a distinguished one, to pull votes to either candidate.
Before we go further, it’s essential to analyze the makeup of the military.
The demographics are interesting because they can reflect political awareness and attitudes. Around 57 percent of the military members are under the age of 35, most of them between 18 and 24. While the officer corps of each service tend to be older, only a small minority of officers (and a tiny minority of senior enlisted) are over 45 years of age.
The younger members probably spend a significant amount of their off-duty time on social media, texting and emailing friends in and out of the military. They, like many of the voters, get their news that way. To many of them — even many or most of the younger officers — history is an enigma. Terms such as “socialism,” “Marxism,” and “communism” are archaic and have little significance.
Many of the younger members of the military use their smartphones almost as much as the civilian population. Many use also their smartphones, Fitbits, and other devices for training. Last year, the military had to ban the use of certain training apps because they allowed the military members’ location to be tracked.
Again, they get their news from social media and few other sources. They are bathed in the daily anti-Trump narratives the media push.
The officer corps is filled by the service academies and the ROTC programs in thousands of colleges around the country. Universities and colleges are notoriously liberal (with a few glowing exceptions) and the service academies — which are dedicated to diversity — are becoming more liberal every year.
Last July, nine West Point alumni sent the military academy’s leadership a 40-page letter demanding that the academy’s curriculum be changed to be centered around anti-racism studies. It was a perfect example of why students shouldn’t be in charge of their own education.
Most military members are probably aware of the Atlantic magazine article that accused Trump of calling our World War I dead “losers” and “suckers” on a visit to France in 2018. But few are probably aware that the article was thoroughly debunked by people who were in France with Trump when he supposedly made those remarks. One of those who swore the Atlantic article was entirely false was former national security adviser John Bolton, who despises Trump and had no reason to clear him of the allegations in the article.
An equally small number is probably aware of the recently disclosed video of Biden speaking to soldiers in 2016. In it, Biden called said they “must be slow” and called them a “dull bunch.” He bragged about his own intelligence and judgment, saying, “I have incredibly good judgment. One, I married Jill, and two, I appointed [Gen.] Johnson to the academy. I just want you to know that. Clap for that, you stupid bastards,” reportedly in a sarcastic tone.
Trump, as always, is his own worst enemy. Earlier this month he told reporters, “I’m not saying the military’s in love with me. The soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
Those words demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the military. None of the generals favor war. But they want to end our wars on a basis favorable to the United States.
Do the soldiers love Trump? Some probably do. Some will remember his visit to the troops in Afghanistan last Thanksgiving. Trump’s law and order campaign theme, which has disappeared in recent weeks, would play well among both officers and enlisted. But the media’s constant — and false — accusation that Trump is a racist will have taken hold in some soldiers’ and officers’ minds.
Can the soldiers support Biden? They are probably unaware of Biden’s frequent confusion and misstatements about the “endless wars” Trump has tried to end. In a 2019 New Hampshire campaign stop, Biden, for example, said he opposed going into Afghanistan, confusing his support for the original Authorization for Use of Military force with his opposition to Obama’s troop surge there.
Many are probably aware of Biden’s opposition to the Navy SEAL raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed. But that is no guarantee that they will vote for Trump.
Enlisted members and officers alike will vote their own version of the “kitchen table” issues Biden talked about in 2008. They don’t worry about whether NATO is failing or whether Trump is unfair in criticizing our allies. They are most concerned about the health and safety of themselves and their families. The COVID-19 pandemic worries them as much as the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They will worry about the wisdom of Trump’s sending troops to guard the Syrian oil fields and about whether Trump or Biden would send them — as Obama and Biden did — to a war in Libya in which we had no national security interest.
They will wonder about whether either candidate will, at long last, bring the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to an end. Those stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan must wonder what we are trying to accomplish there.
The media feeding frenzy over Trump’s refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses will worry a great many enlisted people and officers. They will wonder why Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had to assure Congress that the military has no role in the election or in any dispute over the outcome.
In sum, the “military vote” today is a fiction. Neither candidate can rely on it to affect the outcome. The best thing Trump can do is assure every military member that their votes will be counted in a free and fair election and that he will accept its results.