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Rick Perry almost alone in military service

at 11:04 AM ET, 08/16/2011


Texas Governor Rick Perry is emphasizing his military service. (BRIAN SNYDER - REUTERS)
At a campaign event Monday night, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) suggested that a truly committed president of the United States would have served in the country’s military.

“The president had the opportunity to serve his country I’m sure, at some time, and he made the decision that that wasn’t what he wanted to do,” the Republican presidential candidate said of Obama in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

It wasn’t an offhand comment — Perry has repeatedly emphasized during his first few days on the 2012 campaign trail the fact that he flew C-130s in the U.S. Air Force. “I think people who have had the same experiences connect with individuals of like experience,” he said Sunday.

For Perry, the emphasis on military service is part of his tough, folksy persona. That attitude might resonate with voters, but recent history suggests his time flying planes for the Armed Services won’t swing many votes on its own.

Among the Republican presidential candidates, Perry basically stands alone with his military track record. The only other candidate running in 2012 with military experience is Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who was a flight surgeon in the Air Force and the Air Force National Guard in the 1960s. Unless Perry or Paul wins the Republican nomination, for the first time in 68 years voters will choose between two non-veterans.

And it seems voters won’t much care. In polls from both the 2004 and 2008 elections, most voters said that military service would not affect them one way or the other. Military veterans were equally indifferent.

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all defeated decorated veterans despite never serving overseas (Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, which allowed him to avoid active duty in Vietnam), although all three were attacked on the issue.

Even among members of the military — whose support is more symbolically important than electorally crucial — the effect of past military service is unclear.

Not enough members of the military are captured by regular polls to get good results. The main survey used to gauge military support, from Military Times, relies heavily on career officers, an older and less diverse group that likely skews the results.

In 2008, Paul got more donations from members of the military than any other Republican candidate. This time around, he again leads all the other candidates in military donations. Yet Obama, who never served, got more military donations than any other Democrat in the 2008 campaign, suggesting opposition to the war in Iraq rather than personal history was at play.

After the 2008 primary was over, former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner-of-war Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) edged out Obama in military donations. But the now-president still got more support from uniformed members than his Republican rival, who collected more from people working at the Department of Defense.

With the military draft further and further in the past, fewer and fewer Americans have military experience. Only 1 percent of the population is currently serving in uniform. Only 10 percent of adult Americans are veterans.

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