In an exclusive survey of American military personnel, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders emerged as active-duty service members’ top choices to become the next commander in chief.
The Republican front runner Trump was the most popular candidate in a subscriber poll that closed Monday morning, with 27 percent saying they would back the business mogul if the election were held tomorrow. Sanders, the independent Vermont senator, was a close second at 22 percent, besting Trump among Navy and Air Force respondents. (See the service-by-service breakdown below.)
The results — based on responses from 931 active-duty troops, reservists and members of the National Guard — do not offer a scientific status of military voting preferences. However, they do show that the outsider candidates’ messages are resonating with noncommissioned officers, who fill leadership roles at the small unit level, and with the officers and enlisted personnel who are on track to spend full careers in the service.
The data suggest that military personnel have not been dissuaded by political rivals who contend Trump and Sanders have weak foreign policy credentials and don’t have recognized experts as national security advisers.
Nearly half of the service members surveyed also said they were unhappy with the discussion of national security issues in the presidential race so far. Fewer than 5 percent were “very satisfied” with how the topic has been broached.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has made national security issues one of the centerpieces of his campaign, was nearly last in the Military Times survey, with only about 9 percent of candidates favoring him. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had almost double that, with 17 percent support. Those surveyed offered only slightly more support for Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich (8 percent) than potential third-party candidates (6 percent).
Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton received a little more than 11 percent backing.
About half of the respondents in the survey were enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, in the pay grades of E-4 through E-7. Among officers, Trump still led the field but by a much smaller margin, with his 21 percent slightly outpacing Cruz at 18 percent, Sanders at 16 percent and Clinton at 15 percent.
Almost a third of those surveyed do not affiliate with either the Republican or Democratic parties. Sanders was more popular than Trump among that group, but one in seven of those individuals indicated they plan on backing a third-party candidate.
Trump also appears to be the most polarizing of all the candidates, with several dozen respondents, in a comments section of the poll, calling him dangerous for the military and the country. Three individuals polled said they’d leave the service if he becomes commander-in-chief.
The former head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, received one write-in vote in the poll. Mattis, who retired in 2013, is revered among many rank-and-file troops for his unapologetic frankness with the military’s civilian leaders, particularly when it came to debating the harsh realities of waging war.
Mattis was asked about his political aspirations during a speech last summer, and politely put the matter to rest.
SERVICE BY SERVICE
A closer look at Military Times’ survey results, by branch of service:
How the survey was conducted
Between March 9 and March 14, Military Times conducted a voluntary, confidential survey of subscribers who include verified active-duty, National Guard and reserve component service members. More than 59,000 subscribers received e-mail invitations to participate. In total, 931 respondents completed the survey.
The sample is not a perfect representation of the military as a whole; it over-represents Army personnel, 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 e-mail 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.