Perhaps Dec. 8, 2004 was the day — the point where the “military vote” started peeling off from the Republican Party, for which it had been steadfastly true in majority numbers for at least 25 years. It was the day Army Spc.Thomas Wilson asked then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to uparmor our vehicles?”
To which Rumsfeld replied, “As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want …”You can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and it can [still] be blown up.”
The right wing talkers, true to form, turned on the young man, calling him a tool of the journalist embedded with his unit — though Wilson’s question was met by whoops and cheers from the 2,300 military men and women in Rumsfeld’s audience at the Kuwaiti staging area that day. Apparently “support the troops,” didn’t extend to those exercising the First Amendment rights they were supposedly fighting for — but no mind — the message was broadcast as clear as a reveille: you are on your own.
Since then, we’ve heard about moldy walls and neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the systematic flaws in veterans’ mental health care, the enormous backlogs at the VA, the resistance by the Pentagon to pay disability to injured service members, the 15-month deployments, the abuse by contractors putting troops in the field at risk, the petty way soldiers are treated by the military when they return (like having to pay for their damaged clothes and equipment!) and the (unsuccessful) refusal of the Bush Administration — and John McCain — to pass a veteran-supported GI Bill package, leaving Democrats like Sen. Jim Webb to take the credit when it was finally approved.
Still, discerning where the military community is at politically is a fuzzy and perhaps futile exercise at this point — mostly because the military vote (which would include present members of the Armed Forces and veterans) is so 2004 , and no one has seriously polled this dynamic voting population ahead of today’s election. According to the 2004 exit polling, 18 percent of voters had served in the military. That didn’t include the thousands of absentee ballots from overseas.
There are small signs, however, that six years at war, under an ill-defined, mismanaged foreign policy that relies on the constant, indefinite rotation of less than one-half percent of the nation’s total population has altered, however subtly, the Republican Party’s grip on the military voting culture.
For one, as of August, Barack Obama was clobbering John McCain in donations from active duty military — in fact, men and women serving abroad gave Obama nearly six times more than his opponent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Republican Ron Paul did even better than McCain with such donations — leading one to wonder how two men who had opposed the war were generating more enthusiasm among soldiers than the man whose presidential campaign had been built around his time as a POW in Vietnam and as a singular champion of the 2007 Surge into Baghdad.
This is perhaps not entirely suprising — a poll taken almost a year ago found that only 37 percent of military and their families approved of President Bush’s policy in Iraq, a huge turnaround from just two years before, when twice as many had sided with the President on the war.
To be fair, there have been at least two stabs at assessing this sleeping giant since early summer. Gallup found that veterans still associate themselves more with the Republican Party in numbers similar to 2004, when they voted for George Bush over John Kerry, 57 to 41 percent (Gallup notes this is a group that McCain and the Republicans already fare well with — older white males). Veterans told Gallup they are supporting McCain over Obama, 56 to 34 percent. Furthermore, a Military Times poll in early October found that among present and former subscribers to the Military Times‘ magazines, the majority were going strong for McCain over Obama, 66 to 25 percent.
But other things emerged from these studies. Overall, according to one comparison of previous Military Times surveys, GOP affiliation among senior members of the military — the most typically Republican block — had actually declined from over 60 percent in 2003 to 47 percent in 2007 (there was not a corresponding increase for the Democrats, however).
Despite McCain’s obvious advantage in this poll, it still represents a 10 percent increase for the Democrat (John Kerry had only scored 15 percent of the vote among Military Times respondents in 2004). Sure, surveys suggest as the number of women and minorities have increased in the active duty, Democratic support has been buoyed. But that’s not the only reason for the slight uptick among the military for Obama.
“This indicates that the increased support for the Democratic presidential candidate among members of the Army is due to both a shift of the Army’s traditional voting block away from the Republican Party as well as an infusion of new, predominantly minority voters into the Democratic column,” said Jeremy Dempsey, author and Army infantryman, who points out that of the active duty respondents who shifted to Obama in the recent Military Times poll, 95 percent were male and 55 percent white.
Overall, veterans have been exceedingly more vocal in their opposition to the war policy and in defense of veterans’ issues since 2004, like Paul Rieckoff and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and individuals like Kevin Creed, a lifelong Republican who at the age of 51 came out of retirement to serve as an Army Major in Iraq.
“On the day that President Bush flew onto that aircraft carrier and declared ‘Mission Accomplished,’ [May 1, 2003],” Creed said, “I was in a command bunker outside Baghdad with dust flying all over the place from the explosions blasting over our heads. When we heard that Bush had said ‘Mission Accomplished,’ all the soldiers in the bunker laughed. This was the beginning of my asking, ‘Hey, what’s happening here? Something isn’t right.'”
May 1, 2003 was Creed’s “day,” and who knows how many others have had similiar epiphanies. They may not be heading up a “Connecticut Veterans for Obama” group like Creed, but it’s not clear they’ll be casting a vote for the Republican today, either. There might be a kind of “spiral of silence” among military voters that Leon Hadar had referred to in his recent post. What we can say with some confidence, is that like the conservatives who populate these and other kindred weblogs, there are military voters who feel stung by their own loyalty to the Republican Party, too, who consider independence the true path to change — whatever that might be tomorow.