It is a bold attempt to cut into a traditionally Republican constituency, one the GOP won’t concede without a fight — particularly to a Democrat who opposed the Iraq war, is not a veteran and is described by many Republicans as a weak leader who travels the world apologizing for America.
Republicans have long defined themselves in part on their hawkish stance on national security issues and their popularity among the military and veterans. But the makeup of the nation’s armed forces is changing, and Obama hopes to win over veterans by appealing to the same subgroups that propelled him to victory in 2008: women, minorities and young people.
“There’s a different face of the American veteran now,” said Lauren Zapf, 30, a Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf and who spoke recently at a gathering in Northern Virginia for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Timothy M. Kaine. “The president’s stance on social policies, his work with military families, what he was doing with policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan — I appreciate that.”
Republicans concede the group’s new battleground status. “Veterans are truly a cross-section of the population,” Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said in a recent interview. “I appreciate the fact that the president is engaging our warriors and their families.”
Obama lost veterans nationally in 2008, as Democrats usually do. But he won those under age 60, a better result than Sen. John F. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, achieved four years earlier. Today, Obama is making a significant push in battleground states with large military installations, such as North Carolina and Colorado.
Nowhere is the effort more apparent than in Virginia, which Obama and his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, are expected to visit extensively in the next six months. The president formally kicked off the general election campaign this month with a rally in Richmond. That same week, Romney spoke in Hampton Roads, home to the largest concentration of the state’s 1 million service members, veterans and their families.
Obama is attempting a novel approach to reaching veterans and to understanding who they are and what their concerns are. While most veterans are older and more conservative, younger veterans who served more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan include more women and minorities. Politically, they are more reflective of the nation overall: independent-minded, less socially conservative and more supportive of the winding down of the two wars the president inherited.
As a result, Obama campaign advisers said their play for veterans will mimic their efforts to reach particular communities. Neighborhood teams will seek out individual voters on the phone, via the Internet and door to door in key, military-heavy states.
“Before 2008, nobody talked about military families,” said Rob Diamond, who served in Iraq and is the Obama campaign’s vote director for veterans and military families. “Military families have become part of the national conversation. Americans realize that when you have an all-volunteer military, the sacrifice is not just by the service members but their families, too.”
The Obama campaign sees an opportunity to tout his record not only on foreign affairs but also on social issues such as his repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gay men and lesbians from military service. At the same time, the campaign is pointing to the president’s work on the home front, such as programs to help military families cope with long deployments.
In addition, the president is promoting a Veterans Jobs Corps to help service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan get jobs as police officers and firefighters. And his campaign is hosting house parties in military-heavy communities such as Virginia Beach. The parties are intended as a lead-up to a broader push to reach out to these voters. That push will include a visit to Virginia this week by Vice President Biden’s son Beau, the Delaware attorney general, who served in Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard. Biden will join local veterans in Norfolk on Thursday.
Courtship has its risks
Playing to military-friendly voters is not without risk for Obama. If Obama is seen as diverting attention from the economy, he could turn off voters for whom that is the most pressing issue. And if circumstances sour in Afghanistan, when most Americans are eager for an even more rapid drawdown than what Obama has mapped out, his talk of accomplishments there could turn sour, too.
Additionally, Romney allies say the president remains vulnerable among veterans and military-minded voters over the prospect of deep reductions in the defense budget, nearly $600 billion, that are scheduled to begin automatically in January if Congress doesn’t negotiate a budget deal. And they say that Romney's advantage among voters on the topic of improving the economy resonates with veterans, too.
“You know jobs and the focus on improving the economy are very important, because the unemployment rate for veterans, especially younger veterans, is so much higher,” said Anthony Principi, a veterans affairs secretary under George W. Bush and Romney’s point person on outreach to veterans.
Polling suggests that Obama’s courtship of veterans is not a slam-dunk; a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in March showed the president trailing Romney in Virginia “military households” by 41 percent to 53 percent. Polling active-duty troops is rare, given the practical difficulties involved in contacting troops deployed overseas.
Romney has stepped up his courtship of veterans, too. In addition, Republican strategist Karl Rove as well as an independent group, Veterans 4 a Strong America, have begun attacking Obama's record with veterans.
In 2008, Obama’s advantage in battleground states was in drawing out record numbers of black and Hispanic voters and tapping into college-age populations. In Virginia, he became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win in 44 years. This year, one of his central challenges will be to reenergize those voters at a time of deep economic uncertainty.
The campaign believes that veterans, meanwhile, offer the president a chance to outperform his numbers from four years ago — and perhaps even make up for some of the ground he could lose elsewhere.
One of Obama’s central advantages is that he no longer faces a decorated war hero, Sen. John McCain, who as the Republican nominee in 2008 characterized Obama as a political neophyte with no foreign policy experience. Across the nation, McCain won veterans by a 10-point margin— one of the few voting groups he claimed handily.
Now Romney is the foreign policy novice. And the Obama team is doing all it can to draw a contrast between the two men’s records. Advisers point to Romney’s suggestion, on Veterans Day, that Veterans Affairs health-care programs be privatized. They note that his 59-point economic proposal doesn’t mention veterans once. And they make fun of him for calling Russia the nation’s greatest “geopolitical foe.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement and polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.