10/10/2008 07:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Military Vote: Why the Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

The Military Times has released a new poll saying that the troops are overwhelmingly backing John McCain. But a few weeks ago, the Center for Responsive Politics released data saying that McCain got fewer military donations than the other presidential candidates, Senator Barack Obama and Representative Ron Paul.

So who are military folks supporting? Hard to tell. What do these stories tell us about the military vote this year? Frankly, not much.

The Military Times poll is a voluntary poll, not a scientific one. That means they didn't take a random sample. Random sampling may sound like wonk-speak, but it's absolutely crucial if you want your poll to be representative of a larger group. Using nonrandom samples is like offering free ham sandwiches at a PETA convention -- your results aren't going to be typical.

Military Times explains this in their methodology:

"The voluntary nature of the survey could affect the results -- if supporters of one candidate are more prone to express their opinions, for example. The dependence on e-mail could also affect the results, because e-mail users may have different characteristics than the military population as a whole.

Characteristics of Military Times readers may also affect the results. The group surveyed is significantly older than the military as a whole, and the survey group contains a higher percentage of officers than is present in the military.

Conversely, junior enlisted troops, women and racial and ethnic minorities made up a smaller share of the sample than of the military at large. While it is difficult to predict how those factors affect the results, those groups are generally regarded as more supportive of Democratic candidates."

The upshot is, the poll doesn't represent the military as a whole. It skews towards retirees and undercounts minorities -- meaning the title "Military Times Poll: Troops backing McCain" should instead read "Troops and retirees who answered our email back McCain." Same goes for the Obama donation story; military people who donate to campaigns are not necessarily representative of the larger military community. How are they different? We don't know -- and that's the point. If you don't take a random sample, your stats don't mean anything about the group you polled.

The real reason this gets my goat is that both of these stories are going to be used to imply that one party or the other has a lock on the military vote. But 1.7 million people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and they are a group as diverse as America. This year, they are a political jump ball.

Bottom line: Neither party owns the military vote. And any elected official can look forward to seeing veterans groups holding their feet to the fire, like we did this week with IAVA Action's 2008 Congressional Report Card. We'll be making sure that when it comes to real support for our troops -- like looking after the wounded and making sure vets can afford to go to college -- the actions of politicians in office match their rhetoric on the stump.