In Nevada, Obama makes play for veteran support

President Barack Obama speaks to troops, veterans and military families at the Third Infantry Division Headquarters, Friday, April 27, 2012, at Fort Stewart, Ga.
President Barack Obama speaks to troops, veterans and military families on Friday, April 27, 2012, at Fort Stewart, Ga.

(CBS News) Republican presidential candidates have won a majority of veteran support for two elections running, but this November, in the first presidential election since 1944 in which neither candidate has served in the military, President Obama is hoping to turn that trend on its head.

On Monday, Mr. Obama will make his case to the nation's oldest veteran's organization, speaking at the national convention for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in an effort to prove why he, and not his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, who speaks to the VFW on Tuesday, is the better candidate for veterans and their families.

"What he has to say is very important to us," said Joe Davis, the VFW's director of public affairs. "We want to know how he -- and Mitt Romney -- are planning to keep America strong."

Like every major voting bloc, the ultimate significance of the military and veteran vote this fall boils down to just how close the presidential race ends up being. With about 22 million former members of the military currently in the U.S., veterans make up about 7 percent of the population. But the military demographic is crucial for another reason: Battleground states like Virginia and North Carolina are home to disproportionately large populations of military families -- making their support that much more desirable for both presidential candidates.

"This by all accounts is going to be an extremely tight election," says Peter Feaver, a National Security Council official under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and now a political science professor at Duke University. "You see the presidential candidates seeking to appeal to every group: Even a group that might not be the most important overall -- they all matter in a close election."

(At VFW on Monday, Obama salutes veterans killed in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., on Friday.)

Veterans and service members have a historical tendency to favor the Republican Party, and a May Gallup poll shows Romney leading Mr. Obama 58 to 34 percent among registered veteran voters.

But in 2008, Mr. Obama won a majority of votes from veterans under 60 years old. Meanwhile, a May survey from Reuters/Ipsos shows Mr. Obama leading Romney nationally among veterans and their families by 7 percent. From the Obama campaign's perspective, there's a real chance that the president could win a majority of the veteran vote this November. 

"President Obama, even more than the typical Democrat, has been assiduously cultivating the veteran vote," said Feaver. "I think he will probably do as well as a Democrat can do."

Mr. Obama has aggressively courted support among voters with a military affiliation, recently promoting a series of veteran-related initiatives he helped push through Congress and touting the administration's military record-- including the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the death of Osama bin Laden -- frequently on the trail. 

On Tuesday, the Obama campaign released a video highlighting its commitment to "keeping our nation's sacred promise to our veterans" and highlighting a St. Louis parade welcoming service members home from Iraq.

The first lady, too, has shown a particular interest in military issues: She recently launched a "Joining Forces" initiative aimed at providing support for military families. This spring, the Obama campaign launched "Veterans and Military Families for Obama."

The Romney campaign has launched a similar effort -- "Veterans and Military Families for Mitt Romney" -- to which it named former President George H.W. Bush and former Sen. Bob Dole honorary co-chairmen. Amid criticisms from the right that Mr. Obama is weakening the U.S. military, Romney has vowed not to cut its budget. But he took heat last year when he floated the idea of privatizing the veteran health care system, an idea the VFW openly opposed. 

"Normally for a Democratic president, this would be sort of like Romney going to the NAACP," said Michael Desh, a professor at Notre Dame who specializes in American foreign and defense policies, of Mr. Obama's speech to the VFW. "At least since George McGovern, Democrats have had the war wimp label. but I actually think Obama, relatively speaking, is in a pretty good position with that group."

Because neither the president nor Romney served in the military, and because Mr. Obama has shown his willingness to use military force, Desch says the military vote is "not going to be as lopsided as it has been in the past."

Davis points out that veterans are a diverse group -- and one that's changing over time. There are about 2.4 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization. Meanwhile, as of 2011, there were about 270,000 surviving World War II veterans and 1.3 million veterans of the Vietnam War. So while today's self-selecting military members are often thought to have commonalities in their beliefs on a number of issues, there's no clear-cut political ideology for veterans as a whole.

"We care about the proper care and treatment and a strong national defense and homeland security," Davis said. "But nobody's born in a uniform. We all return to society. Political and ideological beliefs are based on who you are, and where you grew up."

The Brookings Institute's Michael O'Hanlon, who specializes in national security and defense policy, argues that both Romney and Mr. Obama can earn support from former service members by presenting bold ideas at the VFW conference and demonstrating a real understanding of issues relevant to the community.

"One glaring concern that military families have today is dealing with the strain that wars have caused -- especially the mental strain," he said. O'Hanlon suggested that both candidates would do well to present a plan for addressing long-term mental health issues among military veterans.

Davis also said the VFA was "very, very concerned" about how deficit reduction measures resulting from last year's deficit deal will trickle down to defense spending. Discretionary defense spending is expected to face crippling cuts if the so-called "sequester" cuts are enacted, which could lead to higher health care costs for veterans.

"Defense spending did not create the fiscal crisis, but the Defense Department is paying a large chunk of the cut to try and fix it," said Feaver. "The president has to talk about how he's going to solve the fiscal crisis without doing damage to national security."

Davis says Mr. Obama has so far proven his commitment to caring for current and former members of the military.

In the end, however, his success in winning their support this fall could easily come down to the cycle's predominant issue: the economy.

"The economy is going to suck the oxygen out of almost every issue in the election," said Desch.