While John McCain's recent polling data has been anything but encouraging, the GOP presidential nominee is getting some good news from a bedrock Republican constituency.
According to a Military Times survey, "career" military personnel are solidly behind Senator McCain, by an almost three-to-one margin. Among the 4,000 who participated in the poll, 68% said they planned to vote for the Arizona Senator, compared to only 23% for the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama.
A breakdown of the survey reveals wide support for Mr. McCain among virtually all segments of the military. The Republican candidate had solid majority among every demographic group except African-American members of the armed forces, who prefer Mr. Obama by 79-12 margin. Interviews with black participants indicated that race was a significant factor in their support for the Illinois Senator.
Otherwise, the military poll was a virtual clean-sweep for McCain. White, non-Hispanic military members (including active duty, reservists and retirees) support the Arizona Senator by a 76-17% margin; McCain also a majority among the survey's Hispanic participants (63-27%), and other minorities (58-30%).
Mr. McCain is also preferred by respondents who identified their service affiliation. He leads among members of the Army (68-23%), and enjoys similar margins among Navy and Air Force personnel. Senator McCain enjoys an even wider margin among Marines, 75-18%.
The Republican nominee is also viewed as a better choice for handling domestic and foreign policy issues. Seventy-four percent of survey respondents said McCain would do a better job handling the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan (compared to only 19% for Obama). By a slightly wider margin (77-15%), military personnel and retirees believe the GOP candidate would be better at handling issues affecting the armed forces. McCain was also viewed as more qualified on domestic matters, but the gap was much narrower, 50-33%.
In terms of why they're supporting a particular candidate, most of the poll participants (42%) said character was the most important issue. Twenty-five percent of the respondents identified the economy as their reason for picking a candidate, while the war in Iraq ranked third.
As Times reporter Brendan McGarry notes, the results suggest the Democrats have made little inroads with military voters, despite on-going conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the party's attempt to appeal to that voting block, with tailored campaign messages and recent legislation that expanded G.I. Bill benefits.
In fairness, we should offer a few caveats about this poll, as we have with previous surveys conducted by Military Times. First, the publishing company draws respondents from its readership list; more than 80,000 current and former subscribers were invited to participate, via a secure website. More than 4,000 actually took part in the poll, which was conducted between 22-29 September. Since it is a voluntary survey, it is impossible to determine the margins of error within the data.
Additionally--by the Times' own admission, the survey is weighted toward "career" military personnel, a group more likely to vote for Republican candidates. Survey participants were also older than the military average, and the group contained a higher percentage of officers than the armed forces as a whole.
Still, executives at Gannett (which publishes the Military Times papers) have touted past polls as a potential barometer of the professional military. It is also the only recurring survey that is aimed at measuring opinion within the armed forces. And surprisingly, the publications have actually assigned a margin of error (3%) to previous polls, using a similar methodology. But even if a wider margin is factored in, the conclusion is still clear; the vast majority of military personnel and retirees will vote for John McCain in November.
How much of an impact will they have? In several battleground states, military voters represent an important demographic, particularly for Republicans. Florida, for example, has thousands of active duty and retiree voters in the Panhandle, along the eastern "Space Coast," and in the Tampa Bay area. Thousands of other military members vote in Florida by absentee ballot. For Mr. McCain to win the state, he needs to run up healthy margins in those areas; if the Times survey is any indication, his military "base" seems secure.
Unfortunately, there is one bit of discouraging news in the Military Times survey. Over half of the survey participants--56%--plan to vote by absentee ballot. Recent research indicates that two-thirds of military absentee votes went uncounted in the last presidential election, largely because members of the armed forces (and their dependents) received their ballots late, or they were returned after deadlines set by state and local officials.
Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats have consistently blocked efforts to make military votes count. Not a single Democrat supported a GOP measure that would have required DoD to ship absentee ballots via air mail, cutting return times from three or four weeks, to a matter of days.
ADDENDUM: There are also significant numbers of military voters in two other battleground states, Virginia and Ohio. While the McCain campaign has been active in the Buckeye State, their efforts in the Old Dominion have been sporadic, although TV advertising has increased over the past week. Meanwhile, Barack Obama has been to Virginia at least four times, most recently on Saturday. Obama has his own, targeted groups in the Commonwealth, and he's using that ground game to partly offset McCain's military advantage.