San Diego Union Tribune

July 29, 2004

Bush, Kerry court the military's vote

By Otto Kreisher 

WASHINGTON With a presidential race so tight that a few thousand votes in a handful of states could decide the outcome, both campaigns are engaged in possibly the most intense effort to attract military voters since the Civil War.

While candidates in the crucial 1864 wartime Union election focused solely on the soldiers, the campaigns this year are battling over a broader military population that includes millions of veterans and hundreds of thousands of service family members.

Like the 1864 contest between President Abraham Lincoln and retired Gen. George McClellan, this election pits a Republican incumbent who never saw combat against a Democratic challenger considered a war hero.

Despite those contrasting records, pollsters and experts on the military believe that President Bush has a clear advantage among active military personnel, though Sen. John Kerry is more competitive among veterans and might be making inroads among their family members.

"My view is that Kerry's veteran status is not going to be much of a draw mainly because of his fervent opposition to the war after his return from Vietnam," said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University. "His hero status is offset by that."

While in Iraq and Kuwait in December, Moskos said the general view among the troops "was strong support for the president."

Kerry should not expect a lot of support within the active military because "most of the career military is so conservative," he said, referring to senior enlisted members and officers.

That view is far from universal.

"The assertion that the military has historically voted Republican is an overstatement and overly simplistic," said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.

"On the average," he said, "the professional military vote has been more Republican than the nation as a whole." But, "that tends to be true of all professions," including those in the legal and medical fields, he added.

Research on the other 85 percent of military personnel the junior enlisted service members suggests that group is "pretty much mainstream American, not disproportionally conservative, not disproportionally Republican," Segal said.

Moskos agrees that the younger enlisted personnel would be less likely to vote for a Republican than more senior troops, particularly because of the significant percentage of blacks and Latinos, who tend to vote more Democratic.

But the career personnel are more likely to vote, he added.

As if to counter thoughts the top brass will cast ballots for Bush, Kerry has showcased support from numerous former highly ranked officers. Yesterday, retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton, spoke to the Democratic National Convention on Kerry's behalf.

A number of political analysts have concluded that the military vote, including absentee ballots from overseas, might have been the deciding factor in Bush's 537-vote margin of victory in Florida in 2000. That possibility may have triggered the current appeal to the military by both campaigns.

The president has held half a dozen events on military bases this year. Vice President Dick Cheney held a rally Tuesday at Camp Pendleton.

Kerry has made his service in Vietnam a key part of his campaign and has surrounded himself with fellow veterans, particularly the enlisted men who served on the Navy swift boats he commanded there.

Although the military has done little in the past to encourage people to vote, the Pentagon launched a major campaign this year to help the troops, particularly those deployed overseas, register to vote and to apply for absentee ballots.

Moskos suggested that the Bush administration supported that effort "because the likelihood of them voting Republican is much higher."

Segal agreed but added: "I don't think the data I've seen supports that assumption."

He said the prolonged conflict in Iraq and the call up of the National Guard and Reserves appears to be triggering a backlash. "I'm hearing a lot of dissatisfaction, particularly from family members," Segal said.

"The closest thing to an anti-war movement in the country is what I'm hearing from Guard and Reserve families and employers," he said.

Moskos said that could undercut Bush's advantage. "If there is any erosion, it would be because of lack of support by family members," he said.

Recent polling data seem to shore up those views.

A series of polls by the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press showed that Bush leads Kerry among men with military experience, 49 percent to 40 percent. Other polls gave Bush an even larger advantage.

A Battleground Poll conducted in late June by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican surveyor Ed Goeas showed that likely voters among active military and reserve personnel and veterans favored Bush over Kerry, 52 percent to 44.

However, Lake said there was some anecdotal evidence Kerry does better among military wives.

Last September, a Battleground Poll showed Bush's approval rating among military family members at only 36 percent.

Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke, said Kerry is making inroads among the families of military personnel, particularly the kin of Guard and Reserve members deployed to Iraq.

As for military policy, Kerry and Bush have their differences. On Iraq, Kerry has criticized the president's handling of the war, but has not proposed radical changes such as immediately withdrawing U.S. forces.

Those differences pale in comparison with those 140 years ago.

In 1864, Lincoln insisted on victory and McClelland called for a swift negotiated end to the Civil War. The president won 77.5 percent of the soldiers' vote.