Military Times poll: Trump trails Biden by nearly 6 points among active-duty troops

Despite Trump's military fetish, his approval rating among troops has steadily dropped during his term, polls show

Published August 31, 2020 2:21PM (EDT)

In this file photo taken on November 28, 2019, US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.  (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
In this file photo taken on November 28, 2019, US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

A new Military Times poll shows that active-duty service members' opinions of President Trump continue to drop, while Democratic nominee Joe Biden enjoys a lead among the traditionally conservative demographic.

The poll, conducted earlier in August before either political party held its convention, appears to contradict the president's frequent boasts that members of the military favor him because of defense budget increases, his alleged tough stance on international terrorist organizations and his promises to decrease the presence of U.S. troops overseas.

Military Times polling has in fact shown a steady decline in active-duty troops' opinion of their commander in chief over the course of his term. The latest round — a survey of more than 1,000 troops — found that 49.9% hold an unfavorable view of the president, and 42% said they "strongly" disapprove of Trump's time in office. About 38% of respondents say they hold a favorable view of Trump. (The poll had a 2% margin of error.)

The results also found that 43.1% of troops surveyed said they would vote for Biden if the election were held today, as opposed to 37.4% who said that they would vote to re-elect Trump. About 12.8% of respondents said they would vote third-party, and 9% said they would not vote at all.

A May 2016 Military Times survey of active-duty troops showed Trump beating Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton by better than a 2-to-1 margin.

But Trump's latest poor favorability rating further extends a trend across his term: In a Military Times poll from late 2019, Trump's "favorable" rating was about 42%. That was down from the start of his term, when the president rated 46% favorable and 37% unfavorable.

By comparison, a national Gallup Poll carried out before the political conventions found that 55% of all Americans held a negative view of the president, against 42% who viewed him positively.

A number of factors could explain the negative trend. Trump was recently reported to have ignored intelligence that Russian intelligence had placed bounties on American troops in Afghanistan. He has consistently depicted troop-deployment issues as a matter of balancing the financial ledger, complaining that long-time NATO allies don't pay enough and expressing frustration at the funds the U.S. puts towards maintaining a military presence in South Korea.

Trump has also been criticized for using the military as political pawns, such as oft-repeated his desire to stage a military parade in Washington, a move that resounds of strongman tactics in anti-democratic nations. The president's pardon of convicted Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher also drew fire from within the military, as Trump overrode Gallagher's commanding officers and ordered the Pentagon to let him keep his SEAL Trident.

Following that pardon, Richard Spencer, who was fired as secretary of the Navy for resisting Trump's defense of Gallagher, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that although he had personally asked the president to stay out of the case, he was overruled because Trump has "very little understanding of what it means to be in the military."

Amid Black Lives Matter protests this June, Trump, who took to a bunker when protesters gathered at the White House gates, repeatedly threatened to deploy troops to U.S. cities in a law enforcement capacity, a notion quickly stamped out by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

"The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire situations," Esper told reporters during a June 3 briefing. "We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act."

That same week, Trump staged a photo-op outside the White House that included Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who later apologized for his presence, saying he regretted the appearance of politicizing the military.

Trump has also caught intense criticism for repeatedly disparaging the legacy of the late Sen. John McCain, who spent years in captivity as a POW in Vietnam, and for his veiled threats against National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whom the president later fired in an act of retaliation for his testimony in impeachment proceedings.

Sill, Military Times reports that Trump's popularity among service members exceeds that of former President Barack Obama, who in a Military Times poll at the end of his term had a 36% favorable rating versus a 52% unfavorable rating.

Trump's slip in popularity among military personnel, coupled with Biden's modest but significant edge, suggests the wider struggle Trump faces to drum up enthusiasm in November.

"It's fair to say that Trump is not as popular as Republican nominees have been in the past among this group," Peter Feaver, an adviser to former President George W. Bush who now teaches political science at Duke University, told Military Times. "The bottom line is that in 2020, Trump can't be claiming to have overwhelming support in the military."

The poll surveyed troops from a specific audience: Military Times subscriber lists and other publication databases, which is the same base that the poll has sampled for the past four years. The average respondent was 39 years old.

That could be significant, in that military officers and enlisted members demonstrate sizable differences in opinion, with enlisted personnel routinely holding a more positive view of Trump over the last four years. More than 59% of officers hold an unfavorable view of the president, with more than half registering "strong" disapproval, while 47% of enlisted members have an unfavorable view, with 39% approving.

Rosalinda Maury, director of applied research at Institutes for Veterans and Military Families, which partnered with Military Times in conducting the poll, said that the results are "a good sample of the career-oriented military members' views," which historically have differed somewhat from the opinions of junior enlisted troops.

"But the president claims he has been good for the military, that they're grateful that he has rescued them from the shambles," Maury added. "This shows that's not the case with all of the military."

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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Afghanistan Aggregation Alexander Vindman Donald Trump Joe Biden Mark Esper Pentagon U.s. Military