Veterans and their families could prove decisive in the 2012 presidential election, which explains President Barack Obama’s push to curry their favor. Republicans, who traditionally receive strong veteran support, had better not take them for granted.
The nation’s 22.7 million military veterans stand out as a critical voting bloc because they account for 20% of the country when their extended families are counted, and they tend to vote at higher rates than most of their cohorts. Perhaps more important is their overrepresentation in battleground states such as Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Virginia.
The Obama campaign studied these facts and evidently understands that in the expected tight 2012 race, veterans are up for grabs. That explains the President’s aggressive use of his commander-in-chief status, the nation’s purse and the federal bureaucracy to curry veterans’ favor.
Consider why the Obama campaign believes veterans to be a winnable voting bloc, and what it is doing to clinch their support.
The Obama campaign likely believes the 2008 presidential vote illustrates the unpredictability of veteran voters. Then Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), a former navy pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, should have trounced the national security neophyte Obama among veterans. But McCain won veterans by just 10 points due to his strong support among the oldest veterans, while Obama won the majority of those under age 60.
ABC News hired Gary Langer of Langer Research Associates to analyze the 2008 veteran vote. What Langer found gives Obama hope for 2012.
Veterans were split by party in 2008, 35% identified themselves as Democrats and 34% as Republicans, which was down from 41% in 2004. This Republican drop proved decisive, and illustrates that veterans’ party allegiance is not fixed.
But ideologically the veterans remained the same between 2004 and 2008, with 41% self-identifying as conservative and 19% as liberal. Further, among veterans who voted for Bush in 2004, 12% defected to Obama in 2008, which evidently included some conservatives. Obama also won 72% of nonwhite veterans, and 73% of veterans who did not vote in 2004 but did in 2008.
The anti-Republican shift found by ABC News was noted among active-duty troops in a 2010 Military Times survey as well. The Times found self-identified Republicans had fallen by one-third since 2004, from 60% to 41%. The same survey found self-identified independents had nearly doubled to 32% in the same period.
Apparently veterans who self-identify as independents are growing at the expense of the Republican Party, which means both major political parties must compete for their support in 2012.
The possibility of capturing the veterans’ bloc evidently influenced the Obama campaign to change its message. As late as this summer, both Obamas depicted our troops as “wounded dependents of the welfare state” but then changed their strategy. Last week, first lady Michelle Obama gushed, “I’m inspired,” before thousands of troops at Fort Bragg, N.C. “I never feel like I can fully convey just how thankful I am, because words just don’t seem to be enough,” said the first lady.
Whether the first lady is sincere doesn’t matter. What matters is whether veterans buy Obama’s new message, and his campaign’s three-part strategy.
First, President Obama declared to the Fort Bragg crowd, “I’ve come to speak to you about the end of the war in Iraq.” He expects many veterans will credit him with a number of significant security feats, which might translate into votes.
He fulfilled his 2008 campaign promise to end the Iraq war, which for many troops and their families is welcome news. They are weary of back-to-back combat rotations and credit Obama with sticking to his promise. But withdrawing troops now may lead to new violence and an unstable future Iraq, a problem Obama will address if reelected.
President Obama claims credit for presiding over military and intelligence operations that killed al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Osama bin Laden. He won a new nuclear disarmament agreement with Russia, and helped NATO remove Libya’s dictator.
These accomplishments are tempered by the ongoing Afghanistan war (which he is trying to exit), and the growing tension with Iran. And on the foreign policy front, the Arab Spring uprisings are works in progress, and Obama’s strained relationship with Israel tempers his record.
He is careful about claiming credit for his controversial social agenda among conservative veteran audiences, however. His campaign credits him with repealing the military’s homosexual exclusion policy, and Obama appointees are pushing to remove all combat barriers to women, and allow abortions on demand in military hospitals.
Second, Obama said, “I am committed to making sure that you get the care and benefits and the opportunities that you’ve earned.” He promised the Fort Bragg audience he’d “do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our force—including your families.” This resonates among veterans.
“We will help our wounded warriors heal, and we will stand by those who’ve suffered the unseen wounds of war,” said Obama. The President has made mental health services a top priority for veterans. This is important for both active forces and veterans suffering from war-related post-traumatic stress disorder, and addresses the rash of suicides racking the force.
Obama is also protecting military benefits such as pay and allowances. Military compensation is now $85,581 per year on average, and the just-signed defense bill gives active military personnel a 1.6% pay increase. Housing allowances and retirement funding are up under Obama. Even military retirees will get a 3.6% cost-of-living adjustment this year, their first since 2009.
But Obama’s benefits largesse can’t hide coming cuts in Pentagon funding, which will jeopardize veteran support. The military will have to boot tens of thousands of service members and consider reductions in health care, and the Veterans Benefits Administration is likely to share some of the pain as well.
Finally, Obama promised the Fort Bragg soldiers, “Our commitment doesn’t end when you take off the uniform.” He claims credit for helping soldiers transition to civilian life and unemployed veterans find work. He admits there are 1 million unemployed veterans, but touts his American Jobs Act as assisting veterans in finding jobs in the civilian workforce by providing a tax credit of up to $9,600 for hiring unemployed and disabled veterans.
“And Michelle has worked with the private sector to get commitments to create 100,000 jobs for those who’ve served,” Obama told the soldiers. At an October event, Michelle Obama praised Sears for offering to hire 30,000 veterans.
Mrs. Obama boasted to the Fort Bragg audience that her husband is helping “more than half a million veterans and military family members go to college through the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.” The bill allows veterans, service members, reservists and guard members to receive an instate, undergraduate education at a public institution for no cost.
Obama claims credit for reforming the way we fund health care for veterans by signing the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act. That act funds veterans’ medical care a year in advance. He also championed more than 500,000 veterans previously denied veteran health care and expanded transportation and telemedicine services so that rural veterans get care and benefits faster.
Obama deserves credit for some security successes, and clearly America expects the President to take care of veterans. What veterans don’t like is false praise, half-truths, and political manipulation by those who defend America. Veterans beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing!