Joe Biden’s campaign is seeking to reverse, or at least make inroads, into President Trump’s strong advantage among veterans in his successful 2016 campaign.
That means going beyond the strategy that year employed by the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Starting at the Democratic convention that summer, the Clinton campaign featured the Gold Star family of the dead Army Capt. Humayuh Khan, to which Trump repeatedly counter-punched — effectively, it turned out.
Despite the Khan issue, and having dismissed the military services of the late Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam for five-and-a-half years, Trump won the votes of veterans by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. Trump held a wide 60%-34% advantage over Hillary Clinton among veterans, according to the national exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool as reported by CNN. Eight years earlier, veterans backed John McCain over Barack Obama by 54% to 44%.
In swing state districts home to some of the country’s largest military bases, like Ohio’s Montgomery County, the veteran vote helped Trump flip a number of suburban areas that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Trump won Ohio by eight points in 2016.
Trump outperformed both Mitt Romney and John McCain in Florida’s Panhandle, home of several military bases and where a double-digit number of voters in some counties are veterans. In North Carolina, Trump’s performance in Onslow County, home of the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, was key to winning the state.
But Democrats this time around believe they have a playbook to help push veterans back in the Democratic column, citing the coronavirus pandemic and general voter fatigue with Trump. During the Democratic primary, candidates released an unprecedented level of policy proposals aimed at helping veterans.
On the trail, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a proposal to invest millions of dollars into veteran mental health care, with the intention of halving the suicide rate in four years, while also injecting new funding into Veteran Administration hospitals. Both former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders vowed expanded services for veterans.
Polling of veterans’ political habits is sparse, but what surveys do exist point to an encouraging picture for Democrats. In December 2019, Trump’s approval among active duty members of the military hit a new low at 42%. According to that poll, 50% of troops said they had an unfavorable view of him compared to just 37% who said that immediately following his election in 2016.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has a proposal to give military spouses micro-grants to help them start their own small business and proposes expanding the G.I. Bill to military family members.
“In many ways, this election is about the simple, but profound truth that the American Dream means nothing if it’s not for all Americans,” his wife, Jill Biden, said at a virtual meeting with veterans in March. “And that especially includes those who have sacrificed for our nation, those who wear the uniform, as well as the families who stand beside them.”
The Biden campaign has been in close contact with a number of advocacy groups to help mobilize disaffected veterans for the November race. VoteVets, founded in 2006 by men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, boasts a membership of 700,000 veterans. It endorsed fellow veteran Buttigieg during the primary but has swung its support behind Biden.
“One thing we’ve learned is that the purple swing districts really do listen to veterans, and veterans are really key for Democrats to open up doors not just to other vets, but to a lot of voters who hold those who served in high regard,” VoteVets Chairman Jon Soltz told the Washington Examiner.
The group is pushing Biden to select as his running mate Illnois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a combat veteran of the Iraq War. As an Army helicopter pilot, Duckworth severed severe combat wounds, which caused her to lse both of her legs and some mobility in her right arm.
“We’ve asked Vice President Biden to consider naming a combat veteran as his running mate, and hope he will consider one. In particular, we think Tammy Duckworth would add a lot to his ticket, and we know our own base of supporters are very enthusiastic for the senator.”
Many liberal veteran groups point to the successes of Democrats in 2018 as evidence that running those with military experience helps win over moderate suburban voters to the Democratic column. During that election cycle where Democrats retake the House, 200 veterans ran in races for Congress and Senate. Winning Democratic veterans included now-Reps. Elaine Luria of Virginia and Max Rose of New York, who both unseated Republican incumbents.
Other Democratic veterans, like Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennyslvania, were able to win their races despite competing in districts won by Trump in 2016.
Although Biden has no military service himself, he regularly invokes the memory of his dead son Beau Biden who served as a Major in the Delaware Army National Guard on the campaign trail. Biden ends nearly every single one of his speeches with “May God protect our troops.”
“Never forget the sacrifices that these men and women made,” Mr. Biden said on Monday, after laying a wreath at Delaware’s Veterans Memorial Park. “Never, ever forget.”
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