Why military voters pick Gary Johnson over Hillary Clinton

A new poll shows Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson beating Hillary Clinton by 7 points among active military personnel, despite his proposals to cut military spending and a lack of foreign policy knowledge.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File
A US soldier fills out an absentee ballot at a military base in Bagram, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2008.

Active military personnel would rather see third-party Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson take over the Oval Office next year than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a new poll shows.

Traditionally, military voters have a conservative slant and are more likely to support Republican candidates for the presidency. But in an increasingly unconventional and divisive election with historically unlikeable major party candidates, some have chosen to shift from their partisan ties and jump to the other side of the aisle or put their vote toward a third party candidate.

But when that third party candidate has revealed a lack of knowledge of foreign policy, a surge in support for him becomes more difficult to expound.

“It’s a little hard to explain, actually,” Matthew Dallek, a professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

“There’s no kind of rational basis. I think it’s less about a vote for Johnson than it is about a vote against the two major party nominees.”

The Military Times/Institute for Veterans and Military Families poll, which was conducted between Oct. 12 and 14, surveyed nearly 2,500 active service members about who they plan to vote for in the presidential election. Just over 40 percent said they would vote for Donald Trump, while 27 percent picked Mr. Johnson and another 20 percent selected Mrs. Clinton. Less than 5 percent said they didn’t plan on voting while the rest said they planned to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or a write-in third party candidate.

Johnson, who polls as high as 8 percent nationally, sees significantly higher favorability among the military. Those numbers are somewhat surprising, as the candidate’s qualifications to serve as US commander in chief were questioned when he was asked what he'd do, if elected, about Aleppo, a city in Syria central to the local conflict. He responded, "What's Aleppo?" In another interview, he failed to recall the name of a single foreign leader he respected. He has also promised cuts military spending that would include the elimination of 20 military bases if elected.

All three candidates have their own baggage that would likely serve as a turn-off to military personnel. Front-runner (in this poll), Mr. Trump has said he prefers soldiers “who weren’t captured” while taking shots at Sen. John McCain, (R) of Arizona, and implied that soldiers who suffer from PTSD aren’t as strong as others. Clinton, who boasts the most foreign policy experience and expertise of any candidate, remains tainted by the 2012 Benghazi attacks and the use of a private email server while secretary of State, although she hasn’t been found guilty of intentional wrong doing regarding her role.

With the playing ground nearly leveled by scandal and a lack of experience among Trump and Johnson, the 20-point difference between Trump and Clinton is surprising, and partisan loyalty alone might not be enough to explain it, Dr. Dallek says.

“[Trump’s] record is a long and ugly rhetoric about the military, whereas Hillary Clinton is someone who has a history of being both deeply knowledgable and deeply hawkish as a Democrat,” he says. “Maybe there’s also some reluctance to vote for a woman or express support for a woman. That’s maybe true in society in general, but maybe it’s more pronounced in a military culture that’s still male-dominated.”

While Trump leads among military personnel overall, the polls show support among women for Clinton jumped 13 percent from September to October following the leak of a tape in which Trump described his sexual conduct with women in lewd terms. Still, only 36 percent of women in the military favor Clinton, compared to more than half of women nationwide.

The poll found that officers are also less likely to vote for Trump than enlisted personnel, with only 26 percent pledging support to the Republican candidate. Among this group, Johnson and Clinton are neck-and-neck, both carrying around 31 percent of the voting bloc.

While the support for Johnson seems staggering, military voters aren’t the only ones moving toward the Libertarian. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in mid-September found that 29 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 favored the third-party candidate.

With each candidate showing a lack of aptitude or character in some realm the military might find valuable, the majority of respondents seemed to make their selections without enthusiasm. Only nine percent felt abundantly confident that Trump could lead the military as commander in chief, while four percent said the same of Clinton.

"There's no question that Hillary Clinton has a great deal of experience regarding foreign policy," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont said of Clinton during the Democratic primaries. "But it is not just experience that matters, it is judgment."

Those errors in judgment have haunted Clinton during her campaign. As the Democratic candidate and her surrogates have touted her foreign policy experience as secretary of State, Clinton finds herself trying to reconcile her resume with judgment errors surrounding her use of a private email server, a move military personnel may view as one that plays fast and loose with national security, and those who don't want to experience another term with a president who's a Democrat. 

“Often people vote based on how they see that person, and that’s why fitness and temperament have become such pre-eminent issues in the campaign,” Dallek says. “It also may reflect that there’s a real disquiet among military voters with the current administration and the current Democratic leadership.”

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