Marines watch the presidential debate live early Oct. 4 at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. (Collin Kelly / Staff)
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The professional core of the U.S. military overwhelmingly favors Mitt Romney over President Obama in the upcoming election — but not because of any particular military issues, according to a new poll of more than 3,100 active and reserve troops.
Respondents rated the economy and the candidates' character as their most important considerations and all but ignored the war in Afghanistan as an issue of concern.
The Military Times Poll is a secure email survey of active-duty, National Guard and reserve members who are subscribers to the Military Times newspapers (see How We Did It, below).
This population is older and more senior than the military population at large, but it is representative of the professional core of the all-volunteer force.
The 3,100 respondents — roughly two-thirds active-duty and one-third reserve component members — are about 80 percent white and 91 percent male. Forty percent are in paygrades E-5 through E-8, while more than 35 percent are in paygrades O-3 through O-5.
Almost 80 percent of respondents have a college degree — including 27 percent with a graduate degree and more than 11 percent with a post-graduate degree — while an additional 18.5 percent have some college under their belts.
And they are battle-hardened; almost 29 percent have spent more than two cumulative years deployed since 9/11, while a similar percentage has spent one to two cumulative years deployed.
The Military Times poll shows that Republicans continue to enjoy overwhelming support among the military's professional ranks.
"There is really an affinity for Republican candidates, even though [troops] say that what counts is character and handling the economy," said Richard Kohn, who teaches military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Poll results indicate that about 66 percent of those surveyed support Romney, compared with about 26 percent who say they will vote to re-elect President Obama.
When asked about the most important issue guiding their vote this year, about 66 percent of respondents cited either "the economy" or "the character of the candidate." Less than 16 percent of troops surveyed cited "national security."
And the war in Afghanistan is barely a blip on the radar: Just more than 1 percent put that conflict at the top of their list of concerns. That's in stark contrast to troops' feelings about the war in Iraq in the Military Times 2008 election poll, when 16 percent cited that conflict as their top concern.
"When I talk to my soldiers, it's not social issues. It's almost not even military issues. What it comes down to is pocketbook issues," said one 28-year-old Army captain who took the survey in late September. "They currently see Mitt Romney as being stronger for their pocketbook.
"It comes down to taxes — how much are they going to have to pay — and are they going to be able to find jobs if they leave the military," said the captain, who, like most troops interviewed by Military Times, requested anonymity before discussing personal political views.
But some Obama supporters said they don't believe a vote for him will necessarily hit them in the wallet.
A Navy fire controlman first class noted that Obama proposed to increase taxes on upper-income earners, specifically those making more than $200,000 a year, or $250,000 for a family.
"How many people in the military make more than $200,000 a year?" the sailor said.
Although service members have their health care needs covered by the military, the state of national health care is important to an Air Force technical sergeant at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
"I grew up in a low-income family that never had health care," the airman said. "You waited until you were extremely sick, and then my mother would take us to an emergency room.
"I'm in favor of everyone having health care," he said, adding that the Obama administration's health care plan may not be "the best one out there, but it's better than nothing."
The airman also is disappointed in Romney's continued lack of details on his plans.
"He seems to tell you what you want to hear but doesn't back it up with specifics," he said.
Many Romney supporters cite their candidate's business experience as an asset, especially in times of national fiscal trouble.
Capt. John Bowe, a Marine military policeman stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., said he's voting for Romney because it's clear Obama is doing a poor job with the nation's finances.
"You cannot add $6 trillion to the [national] debt in 3½ years and not expect massive repercussions," he said.
Yet some in the Obama camp say Romney's career as a chief executive for an investment company does not necessarily prepare him well for the White House.
"The guy is all about making money, which is great, but government doesn't work like a business," the sailor said. "It just doesn't work that way. It's not a for-profit industry."
A Navy commander and helicopter pilot who is a registered Republican said he plans to vote for Romney, but added, "I don't have much faith in either" candidate.
Obama "has proven that he can't fulfill his campaign promises. And I don't have much faith in Romney to be able to fulfill his," the commander said.
UNC Chapel Hill's Kohn, who reviewed the poll results at the request of Military Times, said this year's responses "really track with traditional views of the military, regardless of President Obama's reaching out to military families."
Obama edges upward
While Obama supporters in uniform are clearly a minority, the president's standing among Military Times readers has improved 3 percentage points since the 2008 poll, when he was a first-term senator facing off against Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. In 2008, 23 percent of respondents supported Obama, while 68 percent backed McCain.
That may suggest that the GOP's dominance on military issues is ebbing, if very slowly, said Peter Feaver, an expert on civil-military relations who teaches at Duke University.
"[For] several decades, the Republicans had what is known as ‘issue ownership' on national security," said Feaver, who served as a special adviser to the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. "The last five to six years has produced a little bit of a swing of the pendulum."
He cited several reasons for the potential shift, including a perception that the Bush administration mishandled the Iraq War.
The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special operations troops also was a boost to Obama's national security image, and Democrats have courted military voters by emphasizing veterans' benefits and trying to recast the traditional view of which party supports the military.
"If the national security issue can be re-imagined as an entitlement program, then that fits the Democratic narrative pretty well," Feaver said. "It's clearly the way Obama most naturally feels comfortable talking about the military. He's quite eloquent when he talks about honoring the commitments made to those who serve."
Still, most respondents to the Military Times poll were highly critical of Obama's performance as commander in chief, especially his handling of the defense budget and national security strategy.
Sixty-two percent rated his handling of the defense budget as only fair or poor, while 57 percent applied the same rating to his handling of the war in Afghanistan.
But troops were less critical of Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq last year, with 47 percent giving him a fair or poor rating on that issue.
Kohn said the troops' views on Iraq are driven by firsthand experience.
"They are the ones on the ground. They are pretty well-informed people, and they see that there was not a great deal more they could do [in Iraq] … with a reasonable amount of time and a reasonable amount of resources," Kohn said.
Bowe, the Marine military police captain, added that the Obama administration's handling of Libya after Moammar Gadhafi was deposed amounted to "colossal mismanagement" and ultimately cost the life of a U.S. ambassador.
"If you're not an effective manager … you can't run anything else," Bowe said.
The strong views expressed by Bowe and the other poll respondents were not uncommon in this year's election survey. Although the military strives to stay apolitical as an institution, it's clear that many troops are highly engaged in what some experts have called the most potentially significant presidential election in years.
"You kind of expect your soldiers to go home at night and play Xbox and drink beer — which they do — but I've heard them talk about [the election] quite a bit," the Army captain said. "They're more dialed in than some might think."
Staff writer George Altman contributed to this story.