A 'military vote' that doesn't really exist
Myth 1: President Obama will win the military vote because Osama bin Laden was killed under his command.
Myth 2: Mitt Romney will win the military vote because he wants to build up the armed forces to be "so strong no one would ever think to challenge [them]."
Truth: There is no military vote.
Veterans and active-military members vote as voters. When it comes to picking a president, they care about jobs, health insurance, and other kitchen-table issues – just like everyone else.
Consider that veterans narrowly favored Bill Clinton, who some called a draft dodger, over World War II hero George H.W. Bush in 1992, while Bush’s son won the military vote in 2004 by 16 percentage points against decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry. Republican John McCain, who survived captivity in Vietnam, won the military vote in 2008, but only by 10 percentage points.
“There’s this idea that veterans have a shared outlook and interests, but voting behavior is usually explained by other factors, like party affiliation, ideology and religion,’’ said Benjamin Bishin, an associate professor at the University of California-Riverside, who studied exit poll results from more than 20 elections between 1992 and 2002.
The absence of a cohesive military vote, however, won’t stop the presidential candidates from courting veterans and their families. On Monday, Romney will commemorate Memorial Day with McCain at the Veterans Museum & Memorial Center in San Diego, while the president will mark the holiday at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Military voters made up 15 percent of the electorate in 2008, according to exit polls, and in a close race, even a sliver of advantage with one constituency can make the difference. Veterans could be especially influential in toss-up states like Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.
Obama is airing a television ad in those states and four other battlegrounds that references the killing of bin Laden and says "we have a sacred trust" to take care of soldiers when they come home. "It’s not enough just to make as speech about how much we value veterans. It’s not enough just to remember them on Memorial Day," Obama says in the television spot. First Lady Michelle Obama’s pet project is outreach to military families.
"If the economy was more robust, Obama would be doing better among veterans," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, who advised Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark when he ran in the 2004 Democratic primary. "It’s a group that will be challenging for him to win, but I think he has a record he should not shy from."
Romney has sought to appeal to military hawks by criticizing the administration’s foreign policy in Iran, withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and proposed defense spending cuts. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows Romney leading Obama by 8 percentage points among military voters.
"We have the potential to pick up more votes from veterans on the economy than on national security," said Washington lobbyist Charlie Black, a Romney adviser who worked on the McCain campaign. "They don't necessarily vote as veterans."
It’s unclear how much traction either candidate will get -- Obama, whose national security record is undercut by high unemployment among veterans, or Romney, whose message of unbridled defense spending clashes with overwhelming support to shrink the military and pull back from foreign conflicts. Americans favor even deeper cuts to defense spending than currently proposed, according to a poll released this month by the Center for Public integrity, the Program for Public Consultation and the Stimson Center, wanting a roughly one-quarter cutback of nuclear arms and ground forces.
Military families, meanwhile, are far more focused on their pocketbooks, according to a November 2011 survey by Blue Star Families, a support organization. Skewing heavily toward women (85 percent) aged 25-44 (60 percent), and caring for minor children (64 percent), more than half of the respondents indicated their top concerns were retirement and benefits, or pay and benefits for those current serving.
The military community does not behave as a voting bloc on many issues. Older veterans -- especially senior-ranking commanders -- were much more opposed than younger and active-duty troops to last year’s repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," the law barring openly gay Americans from military service. Even within the services there was a divide -- combat Marines were less likely to support the repeal than Naval officers, for example.
Republicans have long been viewed as stronger on national security issues, dating back to the Democratic Party’s embrace of the Vietnam War protests. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on President Bush’s watch in 2001, which launched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, reinforced the GOP’s advantage.
But in 2012, it’s domestic issues like health-care fees -- more than party alignment or rhetoric about America’s role as a global leader -- that are driving some military members’ voting, said retired Air Force Col. Mike Hayden, deputy director of government relations for Military Officers Association of America, an advocacy group of active and retired officers.
While conventional wisdom holds that military members historically break Republican, Hayden argued, "I don’t know if that’s the case any more."
Military voters, he claimed, more recently have tended to bend toward whichever party they feel is doing the better job of “keeping the faith” with the troops -- possibly the year’s most repeated phase by lawmakers and senior defense officials.
Currently, both parties are getting high marks for looking out for military families. The White House has made veteran employment a high-profile mission. Congress, meanwhile, rejected many of the Pentagon’s cost-saving and revenue-generating proposals that lawmakers feared would hurt military families. House and Senate authorization bills passed in the last two weeks omitted the Pentagon’s request to increase fees for Tricare, the military’s health plan. Defense department officials argued the raise was overdue since Tricare had not increased fees since 1995. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the most popular civilian defense leader of the last decade, tried to sell the idea as a practical way to offset spending cuts. The Pentagon also considered charging enrollment fees and raising deductibles for working veterans.
The plan never made it past the Armed Services committees, reflecting election-year worries about military families in both parties.
Republican Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who is no longer actively campaigning for president, has boasted that his call for the U.S. to withdraw from all military conflicts has garnered significant support. In a Memorial Day message to his supporters, he said, "As you take a moment during this Memorial Day weekend to think about the brave soldiers who for hundreds of years have died to protect your unalienable rights, please pause to ask yourself, 'To what end?' "