Do Retired Military Endorsements Boost Support for Candidates — or Just Reduce Support for the Military?
- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is coeditor of Shadow Government.
What happens when senior retired military officers endorse a candidate for president, as 88 retired generals and flag officers did for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump just a few days ago? Are voters persuaded by what such endorsements say about the candidates, or by what they say about the people doing the endorsing?
We already know how some groups react to endorsements. National security experts react with expressions of concern, warning that this is corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. I have joined that chorus before and believe that my side has the better part of the argument.
In addition, political operatives from the other campaign will react by trying to one-up their opponent, bragging that they have a larger number of endorsements or a more illustrious set of signers. On cue, the Hillary Clinton campaign reacted to Trump by trotting out a letter boasting of seven additional signees. The campaign bragged further that Clinton’s list is the longest ever assembled by a Democratic presidential candidate who is not an incumbent.
We also know that the campaigns will try to get their allies in the media to impugn the credibility and integrity of officers who endorse the opponent. Again on cue, one Daily Beast reporter culled through the clippings file to find whatever muck could be thrown at Trump’s signees. (So far as I can tell, the Daily Beast has not similarly exposed the foibles of the folks on Clinton’s list; alas, as every expert knows, there is plenty there to be found.)
But are voters impressed? There is surprisingly little published research on this question. During the 2012 presidential election, I did a study with James Golby and Kyle Dropp and we found that there was only a modest effect on respondents who were cued with information about military support for Republican candidate Mitt Romney or support for President Barack Obama. Obama got a bit of a bounce, perhaps reflecting the man-bites-dog surprise of the military endorsing a Democratic candidate. The effect was more pronounced among independents and low-interest voters, large enough perhaps to entice a campaign trying to work every angle, but hardly a game-changer.
We have extended that research with new polling from the current campaign. Morning Consult asked some relevant questions in a national poll it conducted in mid-August after the convention round of military endorsements (and subsequent controversy) but before the latest round of competing lists. We are just starting to analyze the results and, so far, they are quite interesting.
Being told that retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn endorsed Trump or that retired General John Allen endorsed Clinton did not have clear effects on how respondents assessed which candidate they considered to be best on national security. Nor did it have clear effects on which candidate they trusted to handle terrorism. While the campaigns tout retired military endorsements as reasons the voters should trust their candidate more on military-related issues, it does not seem to work that way for the voters themselves in the aggregate. (We are still investigating whether it works that way for certain subsets of voters.)
We did find, however, that voters who were cued with information about endorsements from retired military leaders did express lower confidence in military leaders overall. As a rule, the public expresses very high levels of confidence in military leaders. But respondents who were cued about military endorsements expressed somewhat lower levels of confidence.
Crucially, respondents who were cued with the full information that some retired military leaders backed Trump while others backed Clinton expressed markedly lower levels of confidence in the military than those who were only told about one set of endorsements, let alone those who were not told about any such endorsements at all.
The same effects are noticeable in another crucial attitude about the military: Survey respondents who were told about the military endorsements were less likely to say they would be proud if a member of their family were to join the military.
In other words, our results suggest that the net effect of the past couple days is likely not a change in how voters viewed the candidates, but perhaps a change — and a negative one, to boot — in how voters viewed the military.
Contrary to our expectations, there does not appear to be any direct effect on whether respondents were more inclined to view the military as a partisan institution. Our earlier work led us to believe that endorsements contributed to a public perception that the military was becoming a partisan institution, rather like what has happened with the Supreme Court over the last decade or so. If that is happening, we did not capture it in this one set of survey experiments.
But what we did find largely supports my view that the solicitation of retired officers to tout one candidate over another has real costs. While it is understandable that desperate candidates will continue to solicit the endorsements, it would also be understandable — and desirable — if more and more officers said, “Thanks for the invitation, but I care too much about the military institution to harm it in this way.”
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