Obama earns most veteran support from younger set

Election 2012 polls show the president fared best with veterans 18 to 29

By Graham Vyse

President Obama waves to U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in March 2010.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama waves to U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on March 28, 2010. Earlier this year, Obama announced an accelerated timeline to bring American forces home.


Rob Diamond has vivid memories of the day the Iraq War ended.

It was Dec. 15, 2011, and he was in Chicago running the Obama re-election campaign’s outreach to veterans and military families.

A Navy veteran, Diamond served in Iraq, but ultimately came to believe what the president believed: that the war never should have been waged.

As the 10-year conflict concluded, he stood before an emotional crowd of fellow staffers at Obama campaign headquarters and marked the moment.

“I had the honor and privilege of standing up in front of hundreds of my campaign colleagues and announcing that the war was over,” Diamond said. “Honestly, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, thinking about the men and women we lost, the folks that were still to come home, and the fact that we had really changed the world.”

In recent interviews with “Half the Battle,” Diamond and longtime Obama political adviser David Axelrod argued the president has been a champion of post-9/11 veterans, winding down two wars that kept them deployed — often to multiple tours of duty — and strengthening support services for them.

These were themes the president sounded throughout his re-election campaign.

“His commitment, I think, is manifest, and young veterans have picked up on that,” Axelrod said.

As Axelrod pointed out, Obama has spoken about the challenges facing young veterans throughout his political career, including during the 2004 Democratic National Convention address that vaulted him onto the national stage.

But polling data and expert analysis suggest a complex relationship between Obama and veterans, including the younger set whose demographics more closely resemble the president’s political coalition.

In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that post-9/11 veterans, most of whom are young adults, “are more likely than adults overall to identify with the Republican Party.”

During the 2012 presidential campaign, veterans ages 18 to 29 approved of the president’s job performance notably less than non-veterans their age (40 percent/57 percent), according to Gallup tracking data provided by Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief.

Still, these young veterans also approved of Obama’s performance more than any older age bracket of veterans, including those ages 30 to 49 (40 percent/35 percent), 50 to 64 (40 percent/39 percent) and 65 and older (40 percent/34 percent), according to Gallup’s data.

“The veteran and military community is not a monolith,” Diamond said. “You can’t look at it as if all veterans are the same. You have generational differences.”

Data appears to support that claim.

Edison Research exit polling showed Obama carried veterans ages 18 to 44 in 2008, even as Republican presidential nominee John McCain, a Vietnam war hero, won the overall veteran vote decisively.

Similarly, 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who also served in Vietnam, edged President George W. Bush among veterans ages 18 to 29, even as he too lost the larger group, according to Edison’s data.

Joe Lenski, Edison Research’s executive vice president, said there is an easy explanation for these discrepancies: demographics.

“One of the main contributing factors is that younger veterans are more likely to be black or Hispanic or female,” he said, referencing three groups with Democratic leanings.

Even Republicans appear to recognize this reality.

“You cannot take the veteran vote for granted,” said Joel Arends, chairman of Veterans for a Strong America, a conservative group that campaigned against Obama in 2012.

Arends, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, said Democrats have run aggressive veteran outreach over the past few election cycles.

“I have to applaud the Democrat Party for being very zealous,” he said.

Arends’ group ran ads attacking Obama for, in their view, inappropriately politicizing the military raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

“We wanted to make the case, overall, that the president should give more credit to the troops,” he said. “It’s water under the bridge. He’s been re-elected.”

Veterans were among the many constituencies targeted in political ads during the 2012 presidential campaign. Here are two competing ads — the first paid for by the Obama campaign and the second paid for by Veterans For A Strong America — designed to court the veteran vote. 

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This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

Word Clouds From Veteran Survey

What did you miss the most about home?
What did you miss2

Why did you enlist?
Why did you enlist in the military.

From soldier to civilian - what problems did you face?
Challenge of transitioning to civilian life

What difficulties did you face upon returning to college?
Difficulties on returning to college

Word Cloud From Non-Veteran Survey

What challenges do vets face coming home? Non-vets

Top 5 questions veterans told ‘Half the Battle’ they hate being asked:

- Did you kill anyone?
- Do you have PTSD?
- Did you see anybody die?

- Did you get shot at?

- Was it hot?

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