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.