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VET-ting the 2004 Ballot

In theory, the 25 million-plus veterans in the United States represent a formidable voting bloc. History, however, has shown that veterans are not a monolithic coalition, largely because of the diversity of the members. With national security a major issue and a battle between a “war president” and a Vietnam War vet on the November ballot, will 2004 finally be the year when veterans unite? Probably not, even with the recent frenzy created by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, since it has motivated veterans on both ends of the political spectrum. But that does not mean that the veteran vote lacks major significance for this election and future elections.

Veterans’ issues have always interested me on a personal level. The most significant experience in my late father’s life was his four-year service during World War II. After training stateside, N.J. Sabato was stationed in Britain until D-Day, going into France, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, and helping to liberate the German countryside from Hitler’s grasp. My most valued possession is an enormous Nazi flag that my father ripped down from one of Hitler’s favorite regional headquarters outside Berlin in April 1945.

Like millions of baby boomers, I learned from an early age about the value of service, the lessons of World War II, and the need for active citizenship from a veteran. My Dad realized that the Third Reich was in part a product of poor citizen education and participation in Germany, and that the Allies’ early setbacks in the war were due mainly to a lack of American civic awareness and preparation in the years prior to conflict. My father felt strongly about citizenship’s responsibilities. He never missed voting in an election in his life, and he made sure that my family was never absent from the polls either.

The purpose of this article is to explore the big-picture political implications of veterans voting in the 2004 election. But before we consider the impact of the veteran vote, we must first explore the composition of the veteran vote.

Veterans as a Voting Bloc

According to the 2000 Census, there were 26.4 million veterans in the United States, and 84 percent were registered to vote. Approximately 24.8 million were men, and 1.6 million were women. About 82.9 percent of veterans are white, and 9.7 are African American. Vietnam vets account for 31.7 percent of the total, while 21.7 percent of vets served in World War II. Veterans were distributed geographically throughout the country, with higher populations residing in the South and the Midwest.

The diversity of veterans in age, race, income, and geography basically represents a cross-section of America. While these men and women share the honor of having served their country, they do not necessarily share a like mind when it comes to voting in presidential elections. For the most part, veterans don’t see themselves solely as veterans. Their service status is one factor in their political make-up, but it usually does not outweigh other political cues, including ideology, race, and income level. Although veterans traditionally lean Republican (mostly because of the GOP’s emphasis on military spending and national security), the overall voting patterns of veterans and the issues that they care about tend to be reflective of the general population.

Issues important to veterans have received significant attention in 2004, especially in light of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vets have a larger platform from which to publicize their priorities – access and financing for high quality health care, creation and preservation of national cemeteries, improved benefits, flag-protection measures – but these are not always on the minds of the average non-veteran voter. Most voters (veterans included) will cast their vote in November 2004 based on two major issues: national security and the economy.

Non-partisan organizations like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are working to increase the political clout of veterans by urging them to vote on specific issues critical to veterans and their families, not personalities or party. Their efforts are likely to increase turnout, but whether it benefits one candidate in particular remains to be seen.

America is more divided socially, culturally, and politically than it has been since the Vietnam era. The divisions are not as intense, but they are nonetheless tangible and will likely manifest themselves in a close popular vote in November, somewhat like the 2000 election. But as we know, the popular vote is not what matters in presidential elections. Victory in our system depends on winning a majority of electoral votes, which puts a premium on voters in very competitive swing states. The election is likely to be decided by a handful of voters in a handful of states, and several of these states include a large veteran population.

Veterans have not yet exercised their full potential as a voting bloc, yet the candidates and the parties are well aware that veterans issues must not be oversimplified or overlooked. Veterans’ organizations and their constituents have made it clear that candidates are going to have to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.

Table 1. 2000 Veteran Vote and Population in Selected States

Gore Bush Winner – Margin 2000 Veteran Pop.
Arizona 685,341 781,652 Bush – 96,311 562,916
Florida 2,912,790 2,912,253 Bush – 537 1,875,597
Iowa 638,517 634,373 Gore – 4,144 292,020
Louisiana 792,344 792,344 Bush – 135,527 392,486
Minnesota 1,168,266 1,109,659 Gore – 58,607 464,968
Michigan 2,170,418 1,953,139 Gore – 217,279 913,573
Nevada 279,978 301,575 Bush – 21,597 238,128
New Hampshire 266,348 273,559 Bush – 7,211 139,038
New Mexico 286,783 286,417 Gore – 366 190,718
Ohio 2,186,190 2,351,209 Bush – 165,019 1,144,007
Pennsylvania 2,485,967 2,281,127 Gore – 204,840 1,280,788
Washington 1,247,652 1,108,864 Gore – 138,788 670,628
West Virginia 295,497 336,475 Bush – 40,978 201,701
Wisconsin 1,242,987 1,237,279 Gore – 5,708 514,213

Table 1 lists 2000 election results from several states commonly referred to as “battleground states” in 2004, along with each state’s veteran population according to the 2000 census. In each case, the veteran population is at least double the winning candidate’s margin of victory.

The Candidates

Both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry believe that they have the advantage when it comes to veteran voters. Bush is running as a “wartime president” and relying on Americans to judge him by his response to the terrorists who attacked the United States. He has strong support among traditional conservative groups, and he is likely to benefit from an improving economy. Veterans supported Bush strongly in the 2000 election, and his campaign is making efforts to retain and expand the number of veterans supporting his campaign. The growing number of young veterans (mostly Gulf War vets) also benefits Bush, as they tend to vote substantially Republican. At the same time, the Bush team knows that even a slight defection of veteran support could deliver the election to Kerry.

John Kerry, on the other hand, has tried to use his Vietnam War service background to help neutralize Republican advantages on defense and national security issues. His military service has been a focal point for his campaign, and he has made promises about increasing benefits for veterans. Kerry has criticized Bush for abandoning veterans during a time of war by cutting benefits to vets and their families. Rarely does Kerry miss an opportunity to invoke his “band of brothers” during his stump speeches, and footage of Kerry in Vietnam has been a central part of his television ads. An emotional appearance with a veteran whose life Kerry had saved was credited in helping turn around his fledgling campaign during the Iowa caucus. Campaigning with vets has added a great deal of humanity to a sometimes aloof and patrician candidate.

Kerry also has a flip-side that turns off many veterans. These vets judge him negatively for actively protesting the war after his discharge, and suggesting that ware crimes were committed on a wide scale in Vietnam. Some Vietnam vets also revile him for his efforts (with Sen. John McCain) to normalize relations with Vietnam in the 1990s. These same vets disagree with him for voting against a flag desecration amendment, which has been supported by President Bush. Finally, the Bush team has also attacked Kerry’s record on war issues, citing his reversals on Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Iraq as suggestive of a pattern of flip-flopping on critical national security issues.

The Old College Try

Where will Bush and Kerry look to employ these perceived strengths? We now must turn to the Electoral College, and in order to gauge accurately the potential impact of the veterans’ vote in the 2004 presidential election, we must look back to the results of the 2000 election and examine some of the final statistics.

In only nine states was the margin of victory greater than the veteran population. That leaves forty-one states where the veteran population exceeded the margin of victory. Of those forty-one states, twenty-five had at least twice as many veterans as the margin of victory. Since all veterans are of legal voting age, it can be said with certainty that – all other factors being equal – had veterans voted as a bloc, they could have determined the winner in half of the 50 states, and thus determined the overall winner of the presidency in 2000.

The reality, however, is that veterans do not vote as a bloc. Even historically, when veterans coalesced behind a particular candidate or against one, that support was not as unified as other demographic groups often are.

In a close election, veterans can have the greatest impact on the 2004 election in the battleground states. Looking again at the 2000 results, there are seven states where the veteran population vastly outweighed the margin of victory: Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

Of the states that went for Al Gore in 2000, Republicans have their sights set on six states that they will try to capture in 2004. Those states are Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Conversely, Democrats are lining up six Bush states in their crosshairs this year: Arkansas, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, and West Virginia. In each and every one of these states, the veteran population outnumbers the 2000 margin of victory by at least 4 to 1. This makes veterans a potentially formidable force, if organization and mobilization efforts are successful.

Both tickets will use veterans’ issues as prominent parts of their campaign strategies. You can hear it in their speeches and see it in their television ads. The Bush campaign is focusing on Kerry’s U.S. Senate voting record against military funding, and portraying it as endangering American soldiers by failing to provide them with adequate equipment and technology. On the other side of the coin, the Kerry campaign is attacking the White House’s 2005 budget and faulting it for neglecting the needs of sick, disabled, and homeless veterans.

Polarization is the name of the game in 2004, and the result is a zero-sum game of Electoral Votes in certain key states. The number of “undecided” voters compared to previous elections will be remarkably low, and the party whose candidate wins in November is the one best able to energize its base and increase turnout. So instead of the candidates bending over backwards to appear moderate, they may well attempt to assert their liberal or conservative credentials.

Marching On

Naturally, in an election year where international conflict dominates the headlines and American troops are deployed overseas, military issues and national defense will command a larger part of the spotlight. Along with this comes an opportunity for greater attention to veterans’ issues. As we have discussed, veterans voting in November will still base their choice primarily on two major “macro” issues – the economy and national security – and in several key states, the veteran vote could easily (if arguable) be a deciding factor.

Roused by the Iraq war and its inescapable comparisons to Vietnam, it will be interesting to see if 2004 will be a transitional election in which Vietnam vets become more of a political force than World War II vets. This would set the stage for future elections, especially as the Vietnam generation and our country as a whole continue to come to terms with the impact of the bitterly divisive Indochina War on the American psyche.

Perhaps more than members of any other group, veterans recognize the critical importance of voting. Millions have fought and died for that fundamental blessing, which is the cornerstone of our democracy. In addition to having an impact on the outcome of the election, veterans are in a position to have a broad impact on the political process. Veterans should work to share their stories of sacrifice with other voters, especially the young. The preservation of our democracy and our way of life does not happen by chance, and veterans above all have the potential to inspire thoughtful participation in the 2004 presidential election.