On the surface at least, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson are far apart when it comes to defense and military issues.
Trump has vowed to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into rebuilding the armed forces with more ships and aircraft, exert “unquestioned military dominance” overseas to prevent future conflict, and “bomb the hell” out of ISIS terrorist to bring a quick end to U.S. involvement in Syria and Iraq.
"I'm gonna build a military that's gonna be much stronger than it is right now,” Trump once said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “It's gonna be so strong; nobody's gonna mess with us.”
By contrast, Johnson, the sedate former Republican governor of New Mexico, favors cutting the defense budget by 20 percent and primarily focusing on defending the U.S. than projecting military force overseas and engaging in “nation building.”
He would vigorously resist putting more U.S. boots on the ground to defeat ISIS unless Congress required ground troops in a new authorization of military force. “If we are attacked, we are going to attack back,” Johnson said of the terrorist threat in the Middle East. But he would bridle at “simplistic options” such as stepping up bombing and drone attacks against ISIS.
Ironically, despite their many policy differences, the two men command substantial political allegiance from the U.S. military. If the presidential election were held today, Trump and Johnson would each garner roughly a third of the vote of military servicemen and officers, while Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton would lag far behind.
A newly released on-line survey by the Military Times and Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families found that among the entire military force, Trump leads Johnson, 37.6 percent to 36.5 percent, with a margin of error of two percentage points. Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady, finished a distant third with just 16.3 percent support, followed by Green Party nominee Jill Stein with 1.2 percent.
It’s no surprise that Trump leads Clinton substantially among U.S. armed forces, especially among military personnel and their families based in conservative red and purple states like South Carolina, Virginia and Texas.
According to a Sept. 7 NBC/Survey Monkey poll, 55 percent of active and former military members supported Trump, while 36 percent backed Clinton. Trump also lead when voters were asked who would be best for veterans’ issues. Clinton has been hurt badly among this group on the trust issue, especially in light of her mishandling of highly sensitive State Department emails that could have compromised national security.
About 64 percent of those interviewed said they were not confident in Clinton’s ability as commander in chief of the military, yet nearly half of those interviewed – 47 percent – said the same thing about Trump.
Although Johnson and his positions on defense and foreign policy are relatively unknown by the vast majority of Americans, the Libertarian Party nominee appears to be benefitting from voter defections from the two major parties. With many in the military sharing similar views with the rest of the electorate, Johnson apparently is being viewed by many in the military as an acceptable alternative to Trump and Clinton.
What’s more, Johnson’s embarrassing gaffe two weeks ago on MSNBC -- when he couldn’t identify Aleppo as the largest besieged city in war-torn Syria -- apparently didn’t hurt him with members of the U.S. military, according to the new Military Times poll. The survey of 2,207 active duty troops throughout the country, was conducted online Sept. 8 through 15, with a voluntary audience comprised of 85 percent male and 15 percent female. The respondents were young – with a mean age of 29 – and they were overwhelmingly white.
Clinton, the first woman ever nominated president by a major political party, has had considerable difficulty reaching out to young, white, male voters who make up the preponderance of the military.
One of the more notable findings in the poll was the sharp divisions in views of enlisted personnel – the rank and file members of the military – and the military officers who are responsible for-day-to day operations. Among the more elite military officers, Johnson was the clear choice, according to the Military Times survey, with 38.6 percent to 26 percent for Trump. In this case, Clinton did better than Trump, receiving 28 percent of the vote.
The picture is considerably different among enlisted service men and women: Trump topped the field with 39.8 percent to Johnson with 36.1 percent and Clinton with just 14.1 percent. That squares with Trump’s more populist appeal to voters and his reputation as a political outsider who is determined to shake up the status quo.
Nicholas J. Armstrong, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families' senior director of research and policy, told the Military Times that the results indicate a considerable amount of diversity and independence among military voters and contradicted the stereotype of military voters being reliable Republican backers.
“You can’t treat this group as a monolith,” Armstrong told the newspaper. “The military itself is a very diverse institution, so we’d expect the variety of political viewpoints to follow that.”
Johnson and his running mate, former Republican Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, have vowed to shake up the traditional two-party system and are threatening to play “spoilers” in determining the outcome of the race between Trump and Clinton in November. The Libertarian Party ticket currently is drawing an average of eight percent of the national vote, according to Real Clear Politics, although Johnson has picked up as much as 15 percent in a few battleground states.
While national security and foreign policy will dominate the three nationally televised debates this fall, beginning with Monday night’s debate at Hofstra University on Long Island, the military vote is unlikely to be much of a factor, as the Military Times polling analysis pointed out. That’s because active-duty troops and reservists will make up just one percent of the electorate in the November election. However, they could be a factor in some swing states, including Florida and Virginia, if the election proves to be exceptionally close.