As the presidential campaign focuses increasingly on President Obama’s performance as commander in chief, a study released Monday finds that he benefits from endorsements of retired military officers more than Mitt Romney does, particularly with coveted independent voters.
Support for Mr. Obama increased by nine percentage points among independents who were told by surveyors that most members of the military and veterans backed him, compared with those who were not told. Among independents who said they did not follow foreign policy news closely, the president’s support increased by 14 percentage points.
By comparison, Mr. Romney did not pick up support with those groups when they were told the military mostly backed him. Republicans historically have enjoyed the public perception of strength on national security, so the three academics who conducted the study concluded that the party’s public image is less affected by validation from veterans. Since Democrats traditionally have struggled to win public trust on national security, endorsements matter more.
“In general, Democrats have lower marks and Republicans have had issue ownership,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor and one of the study’s authors. “The public has internalized the idea that the military tends to lean conservative and Republican. So when you have someone you expect to be endorsing the Republican and you’re told, oh no, they support Obama, that’s surprising information.”
Mr. Obama has been that rare Democrat who has scored well with the public on national security, according to polls, in part because of the raid he ordered that killed Osama bin Laden and his aggressive prosecution of the war against Al Qaeda through drone strikes in Pakistan. But the recent attack on an American diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the ambassador and three others has provided fodder to critics.
Mr. Romney and other Republicans have seized on the Obama administration’s shifting explanations of the attack’s origins and its decision not to provide additional security to question the president’s leadership. The White House has said its assessments evolved as it learned more, and it has accused Mr. Romney’s campaign of politicizing a national tragedy.
Even before the Libya attack, Mr. Obama had sought to bolster his campaign with the support of military veterans. At the Democratic National Convention, Adm. John Nathman, a retired four-star officer, and about 50 other veterans took the stage to embrace the president’s re-election effort.
Such endorsements do little to move the overall public, according to the study, by Mr. Feaver, James Golby, an assistant professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and Kyle Dropp, a doctoral candidate in political science at Stanford University. But they appeared to have outsize influence with independents.
The findings are especially important in an era when presidential candidates are less likely to be veterans themselves and therefore are perhaps more in need of military endorsements. This is the first time in 80 years that none of the major-party presidential or vice-presidential nominees have served in uniform.
The increasing role of military endorsements in the modern era can be traced to 1988, when George Bush benefited in the Republican primaries from the backing of Gen. P. X. Kelley, the retired Marine Corps commandant. It became even more significant four years later, when Adm. William J. Crowe, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs, backed Bill Clinton, who had avoided the draft during the Vietnam War.
From then on, it has become something of a contest every four years for each candidate to gather the most supporters with uniforms in their closets. Conversely, a group of Swift Boat veterans who organized to undercut John Kerry’s war record helped doom his 2004 campaign, and a group of former members of the Navy SEALs this year has organized to assail Mr. Obama for what they call his politicizing of the Bin Laden raid and for not doing enough to stop classified security leaks.
The involvement of retired officers, even though no longer in service, has troubled some military leaders and specialists in civilian-military relations, who worry that it risks diluting public faith in the armed forces. Among them is Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who has expressed concern about the anti-Obama SEALs group.
“If someone uses the uniform, whatever uniform, for partisan purposes, I am disappointed, because I think it does erode that bond of trust we have with the American people,” he told Fox News.
Mr. Feaver agreed. “The more you do this, the more you make the military look like a partisan political institution, and that’s a good way to undermine confidence in the military,” he said.
Mr. Feaver worked on the National Security Council staff under Mr. Clinton and President George W. Bush, and he currently moderates a blog of former Bush administration officials who are often critical of Mr. Obama. The study was financed in part by Duke’s American Grand Strategy program and by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington research organization founded by centrist Democrats who later joined Mr. Obama’s administration.