News analysis: How veterans voted


The 2012 presidential election was the first since 1944 in which neither major party fielded a candidate with military experience. Yet Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both aggressively courted the so-called veterans vote with multiple campaign stops in Virginia, a swing state with a large veteran and active military population.

Veterans have historically favored the Republicans, so Romney was expected to have an advantage. But a Fox News exit poll summary for Virginia found that veterans and active military voted for Obama and Romney evenly, with 49 percent opting for each candidate. The veterans’ vote may not be so one-sided after all.

Leo Shane III, Washington bureau reporter for Stars and Stripes, an independent military newspaper, said that he was surprised by the Virginia numbers, but cautioned against using them as a trend line for veterans’ voting patterns. “I have no idea if the split there was indicative of the military, air jordan 7 or if it was a Virginia-specific issue driving that vote, or even if those exit polls were accurate,” he said in an email. Fox was the only news organization to publish exit poll data specific to veterans.

Polls conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011 found that about a third of veterans considered themselves Republican. Another third said they were independent, and about a quarter said they were Democrats. The public presents a mirror image, with a third Democrat, a third independent, and a quarter Republican. This indicates that veterans are more conservative than the public.

Shane suggested that while veterans did have a Republican tilt, recent events had erased some of the Republicans’ advantage. “I have spoken to a number of think-tankers who have said that Obama’s handling of national security issues has helped raise the profile of Democrats on the topic, which has traditionally been a Republican ‘area of expertise,’ ” he said. “The folks who I’ve spoken with have said that it now puts the topic into play for future elections, meaning that Republicans can’t take for granted that military/veterans voters will automatically be on their side. We’ll have to see if that’s how things play out in the future.”

Philip Napoli, director of the Veterans Oral History Project and assistant professor of history at Brooklyn College, also suggested that security could have been an important factor. “It is fascinating to see that Virginia military veterans were split between the Republicans and the Democrats this year,” he said in an email. “The Republican Party seemed to go out of its way to avoid a discussion of national defense in this election cycle. For me this was a very surprising choice, given the party’s traditional emphasis on foreign-policy issues.”

Veterans undergo a shared experience of basic training and combat. They are often more politically active than the general public, so their opinion matters more to candidates who are concerned with likely voters. But veterans may not be as homogenous as they are commonly believed to be.

In a 2010 Typescript University of California, Riverside paper titled “From Bullets to Ballots? The Role of Veterans in Contemporary Elections,” Benjamin Bishin of the University of California and Matthew Incantalupo of Princeton University debunked the idea that veterans vote as a bloc. They found that veterans are more Republican and conservative than the public as a whole. But, they wrote, “Controlling for background characteristics, we find no evidence that veterans are more likely to participate or coalesce around a particular candidate.”

The paper discusses social identity theory, which holds that “individuals develop identities in response to major socializing events that occur throughout their lives.” Bishin and Incantalupo suggest that basic training is not enough. The breadth of experiences possible in the military (serving in WWII versus serving in Vietnam, for example) prevents veterans from developing the same social identities and voting as one.

Sgt. Daniel Kim, a marine who served in Iraq and voted for Obama although a Republican, said that veterans were more diverse than they appeared. There was a wide set of opinions even within his platoon. “The only thing veterans can agree on is gun control,” he said in a follow up telephone interview. “As far as everything else, it’s personal preference. There’s no unified military thought process when it comes to the democratic machinery that keeps the country running.”

Photo: President Obama at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day, 2011. Source: White House.



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