Who will Florida’s veterans vote for: Obama or Romney?


Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 8:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 8:45 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — James Steele, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent 10 years in the service during the Vietnam era, had a short answer when asked who he was supporting in the presidential election.

"A.B.O.," he replied — anybody but Obama.

Steele, 71, a lifelong Republican and the first vice commander of the American Legion Post 13 in Tallahassee, said that he felt from the beginning that Barack Obama lacked the experience to be an effective president.

"To me he has demonstrated that," Steele said. "He has no feeling for the job."

Steele is one of many Florida veterans who are expected to oppose Obama's re-election in November. A poll of likely Florida voters in early September from Marist College, NBC and The Wall Street Journal showed Republican Mitt Romney carrying 58 percent of the military vote in Florida to Obama's 38 percent. Those voters made up 17 percent of the projected electorate.

A strong military vote could be a factor in Romney's favor in a close election in Florida.

In 2008, Obama lost the military vote nationally by 10 percentage points — 54-44 percent — to U.S. Sen. John McCain, a decorated Vietnam War hero.

But the Obama campaign is working to cut the traditional edge that Republicans have had among the military members.

And long-term demographic trends may help Democrats gain more support among this key voting bloc in the long run.

Florida has the third-largest veteran population in the nation at 1.6 million. But its makeup is changing, with the 449,000 Vietnam-era veterans representing the largest group, although Florida remains the state with the largest group of World War II veterans, with more than 164,000 members.

The veterans' vote will be diminishing in Florida and the nation simply because fewer Americans are joining the Armed Services under the voluntary system that replaced the draft in the 1970s.

In fact, this year marks the first time since World War II when neither major party's nominee is a military veteran.

It reflects a demographic trend in which a majority of American men older than 70 served in the military — while among men under 50, only one in five has military service.

Seeking support

McCain has already come to Florida once for Romney and will return before the election, according to the Romney campaign.

The Romney campaign is also raising the issue of a possible loss of nearly 40,000 defense jobs in Florida if Congress cannot resolve the "fiscal cliff" of potential budget cuts in the coming year. And the campaign has hit Obama for his "weak record on foreign policy."

In a rally last week in Virginia, Obama was introduced by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, a Marine veteran and former secretary of the Navy.

Both Webb and Obama played off Romney's controversial remarks at a May fundraiser in Florida when he talked about the "47 percent" of Americans who don't pay income taxes, a group that includes elderly people and veterans. Obama said that was a wrong characterization of the country, including the veteran population.

Obama said he saw a "whole bunch of veterans who served our country with bravery and distinction. And I see soldiers who defend our freedom every single day."

In another effort to reach veterans, first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, have made helping military families who have had to cope with lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan one of their top priorities.

But in trying to engage the veterans, both campaigns understand the military voters, like most voting blocs, are not monolithic and they are evolving.

Analysts also say the veterans have to be viewed as a group that — like most voters — can be motivated by issues beyond those primarily important to the military, including the economy, education and health care.

Quyet Dang, a U.S. Marine veteran who served in Iraq, said he is undecided about the presidential race.

Dang, 24, a Republican who is now a criminal justice student at Florida State University, said he agrees with Obama's support for expanding government services that help people. He said his father, who emigrated from Vietnam with his family in 1991, benefited from the new health care law.

He said his father, who ran a coffee plantation in Vietnam but took a job as a school janitor in Pennsylvania, had suffered several strokes but had no medical coverage until the law changed. "That was something I was really happy about," Dang said.

Major impact

Dang also reflects the fact that the military vote is not just related to current military members or the veterans. It echoes through their families, relatives and communities as well.

In Dang's case, in addition to his parents, he has five brothers, with one deployed in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army as a medic and another, an Army captain, scheduled to be deployed.

Those families and relatives add heft to the military vote, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

"That's why nobody can get crossways on military issues and win Florida," she said.

And with Florida still struggling with an 8.8 percent unemployment rate, the economic impact of the military is also an issue in the election.

Florida has more than 20 military bases and facilities. A 2011 study by the University of West Florida calculated that military spending was responsible for nearly 690,000 direct and indirect jobs as well as some $60 billion in annual economic activity in Florida.

Some of those jobs — an estimated 39,000 — could be in jeopardy if billions of dollars in automatic cuts in national defense spending take effect in January unless the president and Congress change the plan agreed to in last year's federal debt ceiling fight.

Many of those bases, military personnel and their families are concentrated in Northwest Florida, which has been a stronghold for Republican votes in recent state elections.

Chris Veach, 27, who is studying business management at FSU, spent five years in the crash-fire-rescue service for the U.S. Air Force at the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle. His father is retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, and his grandfather retired from the Air Force at Eglin. And his great-grandfather was one of the original firefighters employed at the base.

Veach, who voted for McCain in 2008, said he is supporting Romney. He said he is comfortable with a GOP philosophy that emphasizes federal spending on national defense rather than welfare programs.

"I relate to them on a lot of issues," he said about the Republican leaders.

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