Military Service in the United States

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

Presidential candidates receive intense scrutiny of their personal and political lives as they seek the highest office in the nation. In the past several elections, candidates' military service records have garnered some attention. Most candidates who came of age during World War II, such as John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole, served in the military in that war. However, recent presidential candidates -- including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Howard Dean, and John Kerry -- came of age during the Vietnam War era, and not all have served in the military. Although the way in which each of these candidates dealt with the draft or military service during the Vietnam War became significant campaign issues, the fact that some did not serve in the military is consistent with what Gallup finds among the general population in terms of military service.

In two recent Gallup Polls*, respondents were asked if they had ever served in the military. Seventeen percent of Americans -- roughly one in six -- have, while 83% have not. An additional 23% have not served in the military, but have a family member who has. So, close to half of all U.S. households include someone who served in the U.S. military.

Who Has Served?

Age and gender do the most to distinguish veterans from non-veterans in the United States. Not surprisingly, 33% of men have served in the military, compared with 4% of women. Women's opportunities for military service have greatly expanded in recent decades, but as the data show, only a small proportion -- about one in 25 -- have served. 

Military service has a decidedly generational cast. Only 7% of 18- to 29-year-olds have served in the military, compared with 13% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 23% of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 31% of Americans aged 65 and older.

Because those with military service are overwhelmingly male, the results by age among men are most illustrative of the societal change. Sixty-eight percent of men aged 65 and older have served in the military. That drops to 43% of those between the ages of 50 and 64, just 22% of those aged 30 to 49 and only 12% of men between the ages of 18 and 29. 

Those generational differences clearly reflect the ending of the draft in 1973, as well as the lack in recent decades of large-scale wars such as World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War that required large numbers of troops.

Even though the U.S. military currently includes larger numbers of minorities and people from lower-income households than the population at large, the data show that Americans who have served in the military do not differ significantly by race, household income, or education. However, if the data are limited to those under age 50, it does suggest a higher rate of military service among blacks than among whites.

The Feb. 16-17 Gallup Poll asked those with military service whether they volunteered to serve in the military or were drafted. Only 17% of those with military service (roughly 3% of all Americans) were drafted, while 83% volunteered. The poll reveals that about a quarter of men aged 50 and older who served in the military were drafted, while all those under age 50 had volunteered.  

Veterans' Politics

Political pundits will certainly wonder what effect Bush's and Kerry's military service will have on the "veteran vote." The data suggest that veterans are more likely to be Republicans than Democrats, but not by a very large margin (31% to 26%). A substantial proportion, 42%, are political independents. Ideologically, veterans are more likely to be conservative than liberal. Forty-five percent of U.S. veterans say they are politically conservative, 40% moderate, and 15% liberal. As such, they are slightly more conservative than the general population, with a 3-to-1 -- as opposed to a 2-to-1 -- conservative to liberal ratio. From these data it would appear Bush would have an advantage over his Democratic opponent among veterans, but maybe not as large as one might think. In the most recent Gallup Poll, 21% of Bush supporters were veterans, compared with 17% of Kerry supporters. 

Clearly, in future presidential elections military service will be less of an issue. With only one in eight American men under age 30 having served in the military, it is very unlikely that candidates' military backgrounds will be relevant. Service in the military will probably still remain an asset on a candidate's resume, but non-service will probably not be viewed as a liability. 

*Results are based on compilation of 2,008 interviews conducted in Gallup Polls on Feb. 9-12 and Feb. 15-16, 2004. For this combined sample, the maximum margin of error attributable to sampling is ±2 percentage points.

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