Democrats and the ‘military vote’

DEMOCRATS AND THE ‘MILITARY VOTE’…. In many respects, the notion of a “military vote” has always been too ambiguous to be helpful. The Armed Forces generally look a lot like the civilian population, so it’s not as if those in uniform can be treated like a homogenous voting bloc.

That said, because of the dubious impression that the military is generally more Republican, reports like these are noteworthy.

An interesting subtext to John McCain’s defeat last week is what it means for the future of the Republican Party with respect to veterans and military voters. With McCain facing a diminished role in the GOP, and Chuck Hagel retiring from the Senate, there are few prominent Republican leaders left with military bona fides. This is in stark contrast to the Democratic Party, which has seen the emergence of a new generation of veteran leaders.

In the past two election cycles, Democrats have added ten new Democratic veterans to Congress. Last week, President-elect Barack Obama helped close the gap among military voters, winning 44 percent of veterans as opposed to John F. Kerry’s 41 percent in 2004.

To anyone who survived the bruising campaigns of the 1990’s, the thought that the Republican Party would surrender its stranglehold on military voters seems unbelievable. But the reality is that this image was never more than surface deep. All those political operatives who seemed to care so deeply about the heroic service of Republican nominees in 1992 and 1996 thought nothing of denigrating and attacking the service of Al Gore and John Kerry when it was the Republican candidate who had avoided serving in Vietnam.

The subject is an interesting issue. The conventional wisdom is that the GOP is the “party of the military,” and Democrats have been aggressive in changing these perceptions, while Republicans have done little to bolster their case. As Peter Kauffmann, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a vice president at the Glover Park Group, explained, “For decades, Republicans have worked to perfect the art of lapel pin patriotism — creating and exploiting iconic imagery for political gain while neglecting the substantive needs of our veterans.”

This is all very interesting, but there’s that statistic Kauffmann used to help underscore his point: Obama won 44% support from veterans, three points better than Kerry’s total from four years ago. I’ve been reading Kevin Drum’s reports over the last week, and I think I’ve finally started to understand the key observation — a three-point swing isn’t evidence of much. In fact, the veteran vote would have had to swing by at least four points just to keep up with the larger national trend, suggesting Obama under-performed among these voters.

That said, Kauffmann’s other point on a new generation of Democratic leaders with military experience, as compared to a Republican Party with dwindling veterans in their ranks, is nevertheless compelling. Indeed, in time, maybe these numbers will affect the voting numbers, because we’re not there yet.