Shadow Government

Does Obama really have an advantage with the veteran vote?

Drudge is pushing poll results that show a surprising tilt in favor of Romney: a 46-44 advantage among women registered voters. I am puzzled, however, by a different poll that shows something different but equally surprising: a tilt in favor of Obama, but this time among the "veteran vote." According to Reuters, "If the election ...

YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images
YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images

Drudge is pushing poll results that show a surprising tilt in favor of Romney: a 46-44 advantage among women registered voters.

I am puzzled, however, by a different poll that shows something different but equally surprising: a tilt in favor of Obama, but this time among the "veteran vote." According to Reuters, "If the election were held today, Obama would win the veteran vote by as much as seven points over Romney, higher than his margin in the general population."

Part of the explanation is the way Reuters defines "veteran vote" to include not only the veteran but also "families." Adding in the families dilutes a demographic (male) that traditionally trends Republican with demographics (youth and women) that traditionally trend Democratic.  

If adding in the family explains the gap, then there is not much of a story here. But if the Obama advantage extends to veterans and the military, that would really be something.

In previous elections, military and veteran (narrowly defined) voters have tended to vote Republican by margins bigger than what is seen in the civilian population. Of course, Democrats have worked very hard to overcome that gap. In 2002, they hugged the more popular Republican commander-in-chief. In 2004, they nominated a Silver Star winner as their standard-bearer who traveled the country with some of his fellow Vietnam vets and made a "reporting for duty" salute as his grand entrance at the national convention. In 2006, they ran on a "support the troops, bring them home from the front" platform. And in 2008, facing a war-hero and POW survivor, they tried to out-bid Republicans on pay and benefits for the troops and their families.  

President Obama has assiduously courted the military along these same lines, and so I would not be surprised to see him outpoll his Democratic predecessors. But given other structural considerations between the two parties, I would be surprised to see him outpoll his Republican counterpart.

For one thing, in the same Reuters poll, Republicans have a 10 point advantage over Democrats among "veterans and their families" on the question: "In your opinion, which political party better serves the needs of veterans and their families." Republicans have a 5 point advantage over Democrats among the same group on "…which political party has a better plan, policy, or approach to the war on terror," a 6 point advantage on "…a better plan, policy or approach to Iran," and, for that matter, a 6 point advantage on "…the U.S. economy."  Moreover, the veterans and their families are quite hawkish — strongly opposing cuts to defense spending, tilting slightly in favor of something approximating unilateralism, and remarkably supportive of the use of force option to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (57 percent agree strongly or somewhat and only 17 percent disagree strongly or somewhat). If Obama has the advantage, it seems to derive more from a personal appeal than any across-the-board support for his platform.

For another thing, previous surveys of active duty and former military consistently show that military personnel tend to be conservative and tend to be more Republican than comparable demographic cohorts in the civilian world. Likewise, the regular survey of the Military Times readership — which is not a representative sample of all veterans or all military, but is a useful sample of career military — consistently has shown deep skepticism about President Obama as a leader.

For all those reasons and more, I still expect that Romney will "win" the military and veteran vote this time around.  

Having said all that, however, I am not sure it is a good thing for civil-military relations that the campaigns vie for the military and veteran vote in this fashion. I understand why they do so — it is a way of signaling that the party/candidate can be trusted on national security, and that is a legitimate thing to want to signal. But wooing the military/veteran vote can be corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. The military have a distinctive position in American society. They are trusted with exceptional coercive power and a privileged access to our country’s resources, but in exchange they are expected to be entirely subordinate to civilian authority.  

We expect the military to salute and obey, even if they are not successfully wooed. President Obama is their legitimate commander-in-chief and has earned their respect and obedience by virtue of his success in persuading the entire electorate to support him, regardless of how he fared with the military themselves. Undue effort at wooing can contribute to a politicization of the military, making it that much more difficult for any commander-in-chief to exercise the constitutional role.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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