As presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney courted military veterans with successive addresses at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev. last week, they underscored a building speculation that those who served could become a crucial demographic to carry in November.
With 21.8 million veterans in the U.S., the demographic is relatively small, but influential and can produce a ???halo effect??? of persuading non-military members in their sphere of influence???family and friends???to their point of view.
According to the 2010 Census, 71 percent of those veterans cast a ballot in 2008. Periodic studies confirm that veterans are also more likely than the average citizen to engage in civic and political activities when they return from the battlefield. With hairline-close elections forecast for military-heavy states such as Virginia, and defense issues taking prominent billeting at campaign rallies, claiming the veteran vote is more desirable than ever.
Accentuating this momentum are burgeoning groups like the conservative SuperPac Special Operations for America, founded this month by a former Navy SEAL commander and veteran of the famed SEAL Team Six, Ryan Zinke. Though Zinke???s affiliation with the special operations team that brought down Osama bin Laden has earned him headlines, he told Human Events that his organization was chiefly concerned with promoting issues important to the troops: the resources to fight and win on the battlefield, and electing a trustworthy commander-in-chief.
Pending defense budget cuts
Active-duty troops and veterans are being galvanized by the prospect of huge cuts to the defense budget beginning in 2013 under sequestration, as well as potential significant increases in veterans??? healthcare costs, Zinke said.
???What we???re focusing on is the facts,??? Zinke said. ???We???re not going to hit below the belt; we???re not going to editorialize. What we say is well researched. We want a fair, well researched dialogue to make sure our voice is heard.???
One new rallying point for military voters is evidence that the White House intentionally leaked sensitive and classified information about ongoing military operations as well as last year???s bin Laden sting.
???It jeopardizes the troops and it also puts the credibility of the military at risk,??? Zinke said.
Though the PAC is new enough that not all its funds are recorded at the Federal Election Commission, Zinke said more than 1,000 individuals have contributed to date. He plans to use funds to air campaign ads in key veteran-heavy states, many of which are also campaign battlegrounds: Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia, Nevada, Montana.
A second new PAC with similar purpose, Special Operations Speaks, will direct its resources to organizing political rallies and events, founder and retired SEAL Team Two commander Larry Bailey told Human Events. ???We???re basically a boots-on-the-ground mission,??? Bailey said.
While Bailey said he and the organization???s co-founders had not ardently supported Romney in his own right, allegations about Obama???s security leaks and his ???spiking the football??? on the bin Laden raid by taking excessive credit for the operation had cemented their resolve to see him voted out of office. By highlighting these two issues, Bailey said group had the opportunity to do what the Swift Boat Veterans did to Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004: raise enough doubt that voters would give their choice a second thought.
Stirring up the waters
???We???re only looking at influencing 2 or 3 percent of the electorate,??? Bailey said. ???But you stir up the waters enough, and mud begins to come to the top. Something bubbles to the surface and people start taking notice.???
Retired Navy captain Joseph John, who founded the PAC Combat Veterans for Congress in 2009 and has seen about one-third of his sponsored candidates win their primaries this year, told Human Events that the conservative message does tend to resonate well with combat veterans.
???There is a correlation,??? he said. ???When you raise your right hand, you swear to protect and defend the U.S. constitution. This is a mindset.???
In turn, veterans themselves stand for universally admirable qualities of trustworthiness and conviction, which may allow their message to resonate more broadly with the public when they advocate a cause or candidate.
???This sounds a little bit hackneyed, but one of our pieces of [literature] has the George Washington quote about pledging lives, fortunes, and sacred honor,??? Bailey said. ???We actually talk about that in our private conversation.???
Zinke noted that the military consistently receives a high approval rating among Americans, while approval numbers for Congress are dismal and dropping.
???There???s a credibility factor in the military,??? he said. ???We enjoy a positive image.???
All this could stand to benefit the Republican ticket, which has held steady among those who served. According to a Rasmussen Poll released this month, Romney leads the president almost two-to-one in support from veterans.
The survey of 574 likely voters, conducted the first week of July, found that 59 percent of likely voters who had military service favored Romney, while only 35 percent preferred Obama.