Brighton, Mich. – It was one of those unscripted moments, the kind that come only when the campaign is really clicking. With the Michigan primary two days away, John McCain was taking questions at a campaign rally at Crystal Gardens, a small convention center/wedding hall in an exurb of Detroit. The ballroom was so packed, the fire code dictated that a good portion of the crowd be directed into spillover rooms next door.
They passed the microphone to a man to the right of the stage where McCain stood. He almost had to elbow his way to the front of the crowd to be seen. “I want to thank you for your service to our country. I don’t know if they know your background, but I came today because I wanted to see a real hero,” he said to much applause. The questioner later explained that he was a military vet himself, was proud of his time in Vietnam, and wanted to know McCain’s opinion on requiring national service for young Americans.
McCain wisely sidestepped the issue of mandating national service, but seemed to hit a home run with the crowd by extolling the virtues of such endeavors. While McCain didn’t play up his own war record, the question had the intended effect of producing a shared reverence for his service as well as that of the large number of veterans present. Earlier, McCain had asked the veterans in the audience to identify themselves by standing or raising their hands. While not exactly a scientific measurement to be depended on, maybe a hundred or more people raised their hands in a room that only holds four or five hundred. At a rally in Battle Creek later that day, the show of veterans was also impressive.
In fact, McCain is probably the only candidate that talks about veterans’ issues in every stump speech. And why shouldn’t he? If one can judge by his appearances on the campaign trail, veterans are a significant base of support for McCain. It’s a reasonable conjecture that McCain’s victory in New Hampshire is in no small way attributable to his appeal to veterans. Veterans comprise over 15 percent of the voting age population in the Granite State, one of the highest percentages of any state in the nation. (A search for exit-polling data on veterans’ voting habits in this past New Hampshire primary and the last few elections has proved maddeningly elusive.)
But unlike the endless navel-gazing over female, minority, or evangelical voters, very little thought is given to veterans as a voting bloc.
And here maybe McCain is on to something. Recall that veterans may have made the difference for Republicans in the last presidential election, thanks to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. While the media tried hard to paint the group as a Republican operation, a new book detailing their campaign against John Kerry — To Set the Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs and the New Media Defeated John Kerry by Scott Swett and Tim Ziegler — demonstrates in painstaking detail that the group was largely a grassroots movement. They mobilized against Kerry because he had built his political career in the 1970s by accusing the American military of disgraceful tactics in Vietnam, and then tried to play up his military service as part of his 2000 presidential campaign. Unfortunately for Kerry, the vets’ organizational and leadership abilities made them formidable opposition, once roused.
Ohio has one of the largest populations of veterans of any state, of over one million. Vietnam veterans are about 30 percent of the veteran population on average. Certainly more than enough veterans voted against Kerry that they accounted for the differential of 100,000 votes that lost him the state and in turn the presidency. In such a close election, if the Swift Boat Vets’ attacks on Kerry’s combat record and radical antiwar organizing activities resonated with veterans to swing their vote even a few percentage points against Kerry, it was likely very damaging.
But while the Swift Boat Vets campaign capitalized on Vietnam vets’ resentment over the unfair perceptions of them and their cause, McCain appeals to something higher. His “duty, honor, country” rhetoric emphasizes the need to elevate veterans and their service as an enduring societal value. Whether this appeal can motivate veterans to support McCain with as much energy as they opposed Kerry remains to be seen.
Between campaign stops in the back of “The Straight Talk Express,” McCain himself told National Review Online that he hasn’t historically counted on a disproportionate amount of veteran voters, but that, in this election, they seem more engaged.
“I think longtime observers will probably tell you that it’s hard to mobilize the veteran voting bloc. I think it might be different this time because of the obvious difficulties with the Veterans Administration health-care system. In all my elections, I’ve had strong support from veterans, but the percentage of their voter turnout has been on par with the rest of the population,” McCain said. “Today, I think veterans are more motivated because of the wars we’re in and the strains on the veterans system. I see more engagement, and frankly, from a selfish point of view, I hope that means we see greater veteran turnout.”
For now, he’s certainly trying to engage veterans. He carries around a card with a quote from George Washington that he reads at all his campaign rallies: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” He also talks about the problem of wounded veterans receiving substandard treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and his plan to allow veterans to get necessary treatment outside of the VA system, everywhere he goes.
Judging by his event turnouts, McCain’s message seems to be hitting home with Michigan vets, and with upcoming primaries in South Carolina and Nevada — states where veterans make up 14 and 15 percent of the electorate, respectively — it may be a sign of things to come. If McCain is right, and veterans are more engaged in this election, his efforts to reach them — unique among the candidates — could pay large political dividends.
— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.