The presidential candidates’ visits to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando today and tomorrow raise the question of just what the “veteran vote” looks like – including to what extent being a veteran actually informs vote preferences.
Most voter groups exist via political or religious affinity or demographic characteristics – independents, blacks, Catholics, married women. With the exception of career officers, veterans seem to have less of a common denominator, aside from the fact of their service.
And for most, that service was long-ago. Among registered voters, veterans on average are 58 years old, 11 years older than non-veterans. Veterans are twice as likely to be senior citizens – 35 percent, compared with 17 percent of non-veterans. And just 2 percent of veterans are under 30, compared with 17 percent of non-vets.
Veterans, who account for 12 percent of registered voters overall, stand out in other ways. Ninety-one percent are men. Eighty-four percent are white (compared with 76 percent of non-veterans). Veterans are 12 points more likely than other adults to describe themselves as conservatives, 9 points less apt to be liberals, 5 points more likely to be Republicans and a substantial 13 points less apt to be Democrats.
If that sounds like a John McCain group, it is: Veterans favored McCain over Barack Obama in our last poll by 58-29 percent, one of McCain’s best groups.
Eighty-three percent of veterans also said McCain would be a good commander-in-chief (11 points more than among non-veterans), while just 38 percent said the same about Obama. And veterans trust McCain over Obama to handle the Iraq war by 59-30 percent.
That doesn’t mean their overall preference is based disproportionately on a military assessment. Veterans also broadly trust McCain over Obama to handle the economy, by 54-35 percent. They’re more apt than other adults to believe the United States is making significant progress in Iraq, but still a minority, 41 percent, say the war was worth fighting. And veterans are no more apt than others to accept McCain’s argument that victory in Iraq is essential for success in the broader war on terrorism; just 35 percent agree.
Looking back to one of our polls earlier this year, veterans haven’t looked different from other adults in their issue priorities, with the economy – rather than terrorism or the Iraq war – at the head of the list. (On another issue, among registered voters, 77 percent of veterans support the military’s 15-year-old don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on service by homosexuals. Fifty-three percent also support service by gays who do disclose their sexual orientation, 28 points below its support among non-veterans. See that full report here.)
Veteran status hasn’t been asked in a national exit poll since 1992, when 18 percent of voters said they were veterans; they broke 41-37-22 percent among Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, very similar to the overall vote, 43-38-19 percent. (Bush was a celebrated World War II veteran, while Clinton had no military service.)
At the end of the day, it’s not entirely clear whether being a veteran independently predicts vote preference. When we run a regression analysis to predict vote, holding other factors constant (age, race, sex, education, partisanship and ideology), being a veteran is independently significant in our July poll, but not powerfully so; and it was not significant in a poll we did last spring. Whether a “veterans vote” truly exists, then, remains to be seen. But in the meantime there’s surely nothing to lose in the candidates’ traveling to Orlando and reaching for it.
(This note looks at veterans in the civilian population. For a rundown on active-duty military, see this blog item from a few weeks ago.)