Military voters could be key next year

They tend to vote GOP, but Iraq concerns could boost Democrats' appeal

November 30, 2003|By Scott Shepard | Scott Shepard,COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - U.S. soldiers leaped to their feet and whooped in elation Thursday when their commander in chief unexpectedly appeared at a Thanksgiving celebration in Iraq.

"He's got to win in '04. No one else can prosecute this war like he can," Capt. John Morrison of Butler County, Pa., said at the gathering.

Earlier in the week, President Bush got an equally gratifying reception at an Army base in Colorado, approving grunts of "hoo-ah," chants of "U.S.A." and, from one section of the audience, cheers of "four more years."

"I'm glad you're on my side," Bush, wearing an olive green Army jacket over his shirt and tie, told the 5,000 flag-waving soldiers and family members at Fort Carson, a base at the foot of the Rocky Mountains that has deployed 12,000 of its 15,000 troops to Iraq.

But despite the cheers at Fort Carson and Baghdad International Airport, there is anecdotal evidence that the political bond between the U.S. military and the Republican Party isn't quite as strong as it used to be.

The military might have become yet another group of "swing" voters, to be actively wooed in tight elections.

Among the reasons are the growing casualties in Iraq, the growing uncertainty over the president's plans for occupying and reconstructing that country, and what some critics interpret as a lack of respect and financial commitment from the Bush administration for military veterans.

"If your job is to recruit military voters to your party, it's going to be easier if you're a Republican, even in 2004," said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who is a specialist in civil-military relations.

"But if you're a Democrat and your job is to woo military voters to your party, it's going to be easier in 2004 than it was in the last presidential election, which was the high-water mark in terms of Republican appeal to military voters."

No political expert is predicting an exodus of military voters to the Democratic Party in next year's presidential election. "The cultural divide is still too great for that," Feaver said.

But, because an election can turn on hundreds of votes rather than on millions, as occurred in 2000, every group will be courted heavily by both parties, even if it means just peeling off a few votes here and there in targeted states. For Democrats, that could mean trying to pick off "swing" military voters.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Lindsay Taylor dismisses any suggestion that American soldiers are not solidly supporting their commander in chief.

"Republicans have a long history of being strong on defense," Taylor said. "President Bush enjoys the support of our men and women in uniform because he has significantly increased defense spending to provide the resources they need to carry out their duties, as well as increasing their pay. By contrast, the previous administration, as well as current Democrat presidential candidates, have supported cuts in defense and intelligence funding."

Before his trip to Fort Carson, Bush signed into law a record $401.3 billion defense spending bill that included a 4 percent pay raise for soldiers, along with significant boosts in family-separation allowances and imminent-danger pay.

The bill "respects and supports the men and women in our military," the president said.

The signing ceremony, staged at the Pentagon rather than the White House, was held after months of criticism from military and veterans' circles.

That criticism prompted Benjamin Wallace-Wells to raise the prospect of a military "swing" vote with a cover story in the November issue of Washington Monthly, an influential magazine in the nation's capital.

Wallace-Wells, like all journalists trying to assess the political leanings of the American military, had to rely heavily on anecdotes to make his point because the Pentagon prohibits political polling of soldiers.

There is, though, widespread acceptance of the notion that military officers favor the GOP by an 8-1 margin, while the enlisted ranks, even with their higher proportions of women and minorities, tilt 3-2 for Republicans.

The 2000 presidential contest provided the most convincing evidence of the consensus view of the military as pro-GOP. In the Florida recount, Bush's partisans fought vigorously to prevent Al Gore's advocates from excluding disqualified military absentee ballots from the presidential vote recount.

"There may be something to this idea that the military is no longer in lockstep behind the Republicans," said Stewart Nusbaumer, a disabled Marine veteran from New York who organized Veterans Against the Iraq War this year. "We're hearing from soldiers every day who are fed up with the mess the president has made in Iraq."

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Shoomaker recently told a Senate committee that "morale is solid" among the troops in Iraq, but a mid-October study by Stars and Stripes found that half of the soldiers there reported low morale and complained of insufficient training and equipment.

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