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How swing-state military veterans played a key role in Donald Trump winning the White House

An attendee holds a sign reading “Veterans for Trump” as Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Selma, N.C., on Nov. 3. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Swing-state counties with especially high numbers of veterans helped propel Donald Trump to the White House, suggesting that his attacks this summer on a Gold Star family did not dampen support for him in military communities.

In a number of counties in Ohio, North Carolina and Florida, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by wider margins than his Republican predecessors performed against Obama in the last two presidential races. All three swing states have rich military traditions and numerous counties in which thousands or tens of thousands of veterans live.

Exit polls suggest veterans voted for Trump by about a 2 to 1 margin, reflecting the typical Republican bent of this group of voters. But the numbers also mean that a number of Trump’s controversial remarks on veterans and foreign policy did not significantly damage his support among military families. Trump said during his campaign that Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) is not a war hero because he was captured during the Vietnam War, that he knew more about defeating the Islamic State militant group than U.S. generals, and also verbally attacked the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, a U.S. soldier who was killed in Iraq, after they spoke at the Democratic National Convention against Trump.

Why many veterans are sticking with Trump, even after he insulted a Gold Star family

Numerous veterans said before the election that they would vote for Trump despite the controversies, with some saying that even if they did not like his actions, they considered him a better option than Clinton. Some expressed anger with the seemingly endless wars that continued from President George W. Bush’s term in office through Obama’s time in the White House and Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. About 7 percent of the U.S. population has served in the military, according to census data.

In Ohio’s Montgomery County, home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Trump beat Clinton 48.4 percent to 47.1 percent in Ohio’s Montgomery County, flipping a jurisdiction that had voted in favor of Obama twice. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain there 52.5 percent to 46.3 percent; in 2012, Obama bested Mitt Romney there 50.7 percent to 47.7 percent. Montgomery County has more than 44,300 veterans among its 532,000 residents. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is one of the service’s largest military installations.

Trump performed better than Republican predecessors in several other jurisdictions around Wright-Patterson, especially Miami County, north of the base. McCain garnered 63.3 percent of the vote there in 2008 and Romney received 66.9 in 2012, but Trump carried 70.6 percent of the vote. Clinton, meanwhile, received 24.9 percent — down from Obama receiving 34.8 percent in 2008 and 31.3 percent in 2012. Statewide, Trump beat Clinton 52 percent to 44 percent, four years after Obama beat Romney there 50.1 percent to 48.2 percent.

In Florida, Trump trounced Clinton in several conservative counties along the Florida Panhandle by even wider margins than McCain and Romney beat Obama. In Walton County, for example, Trump beat Clinton 76.6 percent to 20.4 percent. Obama lost there to McCain 72.1 percent to 26.4 percent in 2008 and to Romney 75.1 percent to 23.4 percent in 2012. About 10 percent of Walton County’s 63,500 residents are veterans, according to census data. It’s near several military installations, including Eglin Air Force Base and a naval station in Panama City.

In North Carolina, Trump beat Clinton 51.1 percent to 45.3 percent, four years after Romney beat Obama there 50.6 percent to 48.4 percent. Obama beat McCain there in 2008 49.7 percent to 49.4 percent, and Clinton was ahead in several national polls there taken in recent months.

In North Carolina’s coastal Onslow County, home to the Marine Corps’ sprawling Camp Lejeune, Trump beat Clinton 65.6 percent to 31 percent. Obama lost there in both 2008 and 2012, but by smaller margins: 60.8 percent to 39.2 percent in 2008 and 62.9 percent to 36 percent in 2012. About 23,500 veterans live there among 186,300 people, accounting for about 13 percent of the population.

Clinton carried Cumberland County — home to the city of Fayetteville and the Army’s Fort Bragg — 56.7 percent to 40.7 percent. That margin was smaller than Obama’s in both 2008 and 2012, when he beat McCain 58.9 percent to 41.1 percent and Romney 59.5 percent to 39.8 percent, respectively. The county has about 42,000 veterans among its 323,000 residents, accounting for about 13 percent of the population.

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