Brass Politics

How Retired Military Officers Are Shaping Elections

Retired Admiral John B. Nathman, surrounded by other retired military personnel, addresses the Democratic National Convention in September. (Jonathan Ernst / Courtesy Reuters)

In September, retired Admiral John B. Nathman took center stage at the Democratic National Convention to endorse President Barack Obama. He did so with serious support: behind him stood more than 30 other veterans and retired officers from several branches of the military. Republican nominee Mitt Romney soon countered by publishing a list of more than 300 retired officers and 40 Medal of Honor recipients who endorsed him for the highest office in the land.

Such endorsements, now a regular feature of presidential campaigns, threaten one of the most cherished principles of the U.S. military: its independence from partisan politics. A close look at three sources -- a 2009 survey we conducted of Army officers, a database listing campaign contributions made by retired four-star officers, and a 2012 survey we conducted of registered voters measuring the effectiveness of these endorsements -- clearly indicates that veterans, especially retired generals and admirals, are involved in U.S. electoral politics in a way that could erode the public’s powerful support for the country’s armed forces. 

What’s happening in the current election is only the most recent example of what is a long-term development in U.S. politics. Obama and Senator John McCain competed for military endorsements in 2008. Before that, the Swift Boat veterans’ controversy shaped the 2004 election. The 2000 election saw competing narratives about Vietnam-era service, and so on, back at least to Admiral William J. Crowe’s endorsement of Bill Clinton in 1992.

Endorsements from retired military influence independent voters and voters who do not pay close attention to foreign policy, even when they do not move aggregate vote totals that much. In a close election when partisan support is extremely solid, shifts among independent voters could prove critical. But in the long run, the more important effect is how such involvement can create the public perception that the military is a partisan institution.

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