Analysis: How the candidates can win the veteran vote
Dayton Daily News
DAYTON, Ohio — Future cuts to national defense, finding jobs after their deployment ends, and getting their health care taken care of are the issues most on the minds of veterans as the presidential election nears, interviews conducted by the Dayton Daily News show.
Veterans form a sizable voting bloc, and are key to Mitt Romney’s quest to replace President Barack Obama as the nation’s commander in chief. But although veterans traditionally support Republican candidates, there are indications the margin is closing.
In May, a Gallup poll found veterans favored Romney over Obama 58 percent to 34 percent.
But in Ohio, where polls show Obama has a lead anywhere from 4 to 10 points, veterans appear less satisfied with the Republican nominee. In the latest NBC/Marist Poll, which was taken in early September, Romney led Obama among veterans by 53 percent to 41 percent.
Political campaigns aren’t built around getting the military vote, but neither side wants to be viewed as weak on defense.
Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University in Ohio, said veterans have clout that goes beyond their sheer numbers.
“They tend to be committed voters, they tend to be high information voters, and they tend to be people who are influential to others,” he said. “Just for those reasons alone, campaigns are going to want to do well with veterans because of the impact in their communities.”
In the 2008 election, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona led Obama by about 10 percentage points in the final tally. Smith said Obama gained traction from voter fatigue with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The November election marks the first time in 80 years that no one on either ticket can claim military service. But the veterans interviewed did not see that as a crucial issue. More important, they said, is where the candidates stand on issues.
The Obama camp has touted ending the war in Iraq, pulling U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, repealing the ban on gay troops serving openly, and substantially increasing spending on veterans health and benefit needs.
The Romney camp has vowed to reverse defense budget reductions and missile defense cuts, replace aging military weapon systems, add 100,000-active duty troops, expand the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs outreach to rural veterans through on-line services, and ease a backlog of claims, among other priorities.
Albert T. Link, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant, counts himself among voters leaning toward Romney.
“I’m concerned about the defense of the country and the things they are doing or not doing to project strength rather than weakness,” Link, 76, said. “If I see that in an individual, he won’t get my vote.”
The growing prospect of $500 billion in automatic, across-the-board defense cuts over a decade bothers Link, a Vietnam veteran. “If the sequester goes through, we’re done as a military force and we’ll go back to pre-1942 levels in almost every area,” he said.
Those automatic cuts, known as sequestration, concerned retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a Republican who teaches military history at Ohio State University and served as executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan.
The president should show more leadership to bring all sides to the table to reach a deal prior to the automatic cuts beginning Jan. 2, Mansoor said. Those concerns will likely lead him to vote for Romney. “It’s really not based on foreign affairs as much as it’s based on the fiscal health of the country,” he said.
Luis Luiggi, 28, an Afghanistan veteran and Wright State student who serves in the Navy Reserve, backs Obama.
“As a student and a veteran and a homeowner, I support Barack Obama because I think he’s moving the country in the right direction,” said Luiggi, who lives in Huber Heights, Ohio. “He’s making it easier for veterans to find work after their tours of duty.”
Luiggi, who has appeared on stage with Joe Biden at Wright State, said Obama would be more thoughtful than Romney about sending troops into battle. He gives the current commander in chief high marks for sending Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan and using unmanned aerial vehicle strikes on suspected terrorists. He faulted Romney for making no mention of Afghanistan in his party convention acceptance speech for the GOP presidential nomination.
Joseph DiFalco, an Air Force and Ohio Air National Guard veteran and leader of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 657 in the Dayton area, hasn’t picked a candidate yet. But he said he wants someone who’s strong on foreign policy.
“Romney, I don’t think he has any record as far as foreign policy goes and I think President Obama’s track record on foreign policy is horrible,” he said.
DiFalco said the United States “led from behind” during the Arab Spring uprising in Libya.
However, both he and Luiggi gave credit to the Obama administration credit for spending more on veterans.
“I actually think the current administration has done a great job with that and I think Governor Romney’s administration would continue with that,” DiFalco said.
Some veterans said the presidential contenders’ lack of time serving in a military uniform among the candidates wasn’t crucial to the role of commander-in chief because the president relies on high-level national security advisers.
“I don’t think the military experience alone would make either one of them a better leader,” DiFalco said. “Had one of them had military service it would be a plus in their favor, I’ll say that, but I wouldn’t hold that against them.”
This marks the first time since 1944 neither major party’s presidential candidate has served in uniform and the first time since 1932 none of the presidential or vice presidential candidates have served, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The 867,000 veterans in Ohio are a key and influential demographic in the contest for the White House, political observers said.
“In a race that’s going to be as close as this race is, every demographic has a special impact,” said Paul R. Leonard, a Wright State university adjunct professor in political science, former lieutenant governor and past mayor of Dayton. “None should be ignored by the presidential candidates because that demographic could make the difference for the candidates.”
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, an Iraq veteran and son of Vice President Joe Biden, campaigned recently for Obama in Huber Heights. Franklin County Auditor Clarence E. Mingo, a Gulf War veteran, has signed on as co-chairman of Veterans for Romney in Ohio.
All the attention from both sides is for a reason: Winning Ohio has historically meant victory. “If we win here, (Obama) gets re-elected,” Biden said.
In an evaluation of the president on key defense issues, Richard Aboulafia, a nonpartisan defense analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said ending the Iraq war and bringing troops home from Afghanistan had bipartisan support.
The “sad truth,” he added, “about Afghanistan “is that it’s a complete non-issue in presidential elections.”
Mansoor, of OSU’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, said the president made “a serious mistake” in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the president should have kept 20,000 U.S. troops in the nation to stabilize the tenuous situation between political enemies. In Afghanistan, he said Obama withdrew surge troops a few months before Petraeus had recommended and gave the enemy a psychological advantage setting a deadline for withdrawal of combat troops. A surge worked in Iraq because it had no timeline, he said.
He credited Obama for tough sanctions on Iran, but questioned the impact it’s had on decision-makers as observers fear that nation aims to build nuclear weapons to threaten Israel. Mansoor said it’s best to coordinate with Israel rather than allow the Middle East nation to strike Iran militarily on its own and the United States is blamed anyway.
Mansoor and Aboulafia gave credit to Obama for the raid into Pakistan that killed bin Laden. “That’s absolutely a success that boosts his grade,” Aboulafia said.
The president “massively ramped up the use of drones for assassinations and airstrikes” against suspected terrorists, but it was “hard to tell how much of that was Obama and how much of that was technological and operational,” he said.
Obama has put the nation back on track with pulling back on counterinsurgency operations and a pivot toward the Asia-Pacific, a return to America’s traditional global power role “but budgetarily everyone’s hands are tied right now,” Aboulafia said.
“You’re kind of waking up from hunting lightly armed guys in Toyotas in some desert someplace (which) might serve some purpose, but it hardly fits in with America’s long-term role as a global superpower,” he said.
Four keys to winning the military vote
Military veterans are an influential demographic in presidential elections, according to political analysts. They are especially important in a swing state Ohio and its southwest region, which relies heavily on defense spending jobs. Veterans say these are important issues to them:
Defense: Projecting an image of national strength through a strong military
Budget: Avoiding automatic, across-the-board defense cuts in January which would have an effect on military and contract work.
Jobs: Being able to find jobs after returning from deployment, which has been more difficult for post-9/11 veterans than for the general population.
Benefits: Receiving benefits and services that meet their needs from the Department of Veterans Affairs, including help with PTSD.