Nearly All Americans Consider Military Service “Patriotic”

by Lymari Morales

Symbolic gestures valued more highly by older Americans and the less educated

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Nearly two-thirds of Americans (62%) say serving in the U.S. military reveals "a great deal" about one's patriotism, ranking it second only to voting in elections among six items rated in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll. More than half of Americans (53%) say the same about reciting the pledge of allegiance, and far fewer about wearing an American flag pin.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama spent much of this Independence Day week trying to assure voters of his patriotism, having been faulted during the Democratic primary season for at times not wearing an American flag pin, and for not placing his hand over his heart during the national anthem on at least one occasion. Obama's speech on Monday, entitled "The America We Love," included praise for Republican rival John McCain's service to his country in Vietnam, in response to retired Gen. Wesley Clark's statement that McCain's experience as a Navy pilot and prisoner of war does not necessarily qualify him to be commander in chief.

McCain's service in Vietnam is generally considered an advantage in this wartime election against Obama, who has never served in the military, and a key reason 80% of Americans see McCain as capable of handling the responsibilities of commander in chief. The Gallup data reveal that Americans do in fact consider military service in general to be a sign of patriotism. While Republicans are among the most likely of all groups to say serving in the military reveals a great deal about one's patriotism, more than half of both Democrats and independents agree. Republicans also tend to place more value on saying the pledge of allegiance and wearing an American flag pin, while independents align more closely with Democrats, who are generally less likely to place a high value on each action.

The high value Americans place on serving in the military holds fairly constant among most demographic groups. But interestingly, key subgroups with which Obama is seeking inroads in the presidential campaign are among those who place a greater value on the smaller, more symbolic expressions of patriotism. Older Americans, among whom Obama does less well compared to McCain in terms of projected voting, are more likely than younger Americans to place a high value on saying the pledge of allegiance and wearing an American flag pin.

The same goes for the least educated Americans in comparison to the most highly educated Americans.


Gen. Clark has defended his comments about McCain's military record, saying they were meant to question McCain's leadership qualifications rather than his patriotism. The fact that Americans do consider serving in the U.S. military highly patriotic makes it difficult for the Obama campaign to criticize McCain on that score. Americans' views on patriotism suggest that it would be of greater benefit for Obama to reinforce his own patriotism through other acts Americans value. While it is clear that a small symbolic act like wearing a flag pin is not nearly as significant a sign of patriotism as acts such as voting and serving in the military, the fact that about 6 in 10 Americans say wearing such a pin is at least a moderate sign of patriotism suggests it certainly can't hurt.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 781 national adults in the Form A half sample, aged 18 and older, conducted June 15-19, 2008. For results based this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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