Candidates court the veteran vote

In military jargon, The Villages is a target-rich environment for politicians.

The recent spate of politicians passing through to shake veterans’ hands underscores the importance of this voting bloc. And as Florida heads toward the Nov. 6 general election with two of the most heated races in the country, how veterans vote has a very real chance of being a deciding factor. The polls so far show dead heats in both the battle for the Governor’s Mansion and the U.S. Senate.

The veteran vote is integral for two reasons, political analysts say. First, the population is so large. Florida has the third-largest veteran population in the U.S. with more than 1.5 million, about 20,000 of whom call The Villages home. And second, veterans vote.

About 70 percent of veterans voted in the 2016 election, versus about 55 percent of nonveterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“Those who have served feel very strongly about their right to express their opinions in elections,” said John Calandro, a Vietnam veteran and the chairman of the Sumter County Republican Party.

That creates a big political bloc in Florida, where veterans make up about 12 percent of the state’s voting-age population but have an outsized impact because of their high turnout rate and level of political involvement.

Appealing to Veterans

For the two races in Florida that will be among the most watched nationally, three of four candidates are veterans. In the U.S. Senate race, Republican Gov. Rick Scott served in the Navy, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson served in the Army. In the governor’s race, Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis also served in the Navy. The Democratic nominee, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, has no military service. Both Nelson and DeSantis have started running TV ads that touch on their military service, while Scott’s blue Navy cap has become a fixture of his campaigns.    

Although Adam Putnam, who is not a veteran, visited The Villages seven times this year and specifically courted those who served in the military, he finished a distant second in the Republican primary to DeSantis, who was here shaking hands once in July.

Scott also has campaigned specifically to veterans here. And he has made five trips to The Villages to present 1,537 Governor’s Veterans Service Awards to residents here as thanks for their military service. As governor, Scott has draped more than 15,000 of the medals — which hang from red, white and blue ribbons — around the necks of Florida veterans.

In a campaign appearance in May, Scott spoke with a small group of veterans about their concerns.

“What I want to try to do is make sure this is the most friendly veterans and military state in the nation, and I think we are now,” Scott said in an interview with the Daily Sun. “I want to make sure when I go to Washington that I go with their issues.”

Scott is running against incumbent Nelson, an Army vet whose military background is overshadowed by his orbits around the Earth in the Space Shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist 32 years ago.

At Nelson’s July 27 appearance in Wildwood, he didn’t specifically court veterans, but he noted his service toward the end of his speech: “I’ve been serving our country ever since I took the oath as a second lieutenant, and I am not walking away now.”

Veterans as Candidates

According to the Pew Research Center, trust in the military exceeds trust in other national institutions, and an impressive 80 percent of Americans trust the military. Both parties are hoping to ride those numbers to victory. In this year’s primaries, nationwide there were 33 veterans running for either the U.S. House or the Senate. And five veterans were entered in governor’s races in Louisiana, Minnesota, Virginia, South Carolina and Arizona.

Retired four-star Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark says veterans are the great hope for breaking the political stalemate in Washington, where politics and retaining power too often rank above the best interest of the country. Writing in the Baltimore Sun, Clark said veterans are running for office in record numbers because they feel the system is broken and they are the candidates most likely to provide a solution. “What’s more,” Clark wrote, “they know the same sense of duty, commitment to results, and the integrity and discipline they have been trained to live by, make them uniquely well-positioned to fix it.” 

Several organizations have sprung up that share his mindset. One is With Honor, which aims to help elect “principled next-generation veterans to office who will work in a cross-partisan way to create a more effective and less polarized government.” The organization points out that 31 of our 44 presidents have served in the military but says the number of veterans serving in Congress is at a record low.

In 1970, a record 81 percent of senators were veterans. But only 20 percent of today’s senators and 19 percent of House members served in the military.

The effort to change that has picked up momentum. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, wants to help veterans succeed in races for Congress and he’s putting up $10 million to do so, The New York Times reported. The money is going to the With Honor Fund that pledges to maintain an even keel, supporting the best of each party. The organization has endorsed 33 candidates  — 19 Democrats and 14 Republicans. 

How Veterans Vote

Typically, veterans lean conservative. In exit polls, veterans said they supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton 60 percent to 34 percent.

There are three main reasons veterans tend to vote on the conservative side of the aisle, said Aubrey Jewett, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

First, as a group, they tend to be older white males who, as a demographic, tend to be more conservative, and Republican.

Second, with the current all-volunteer military, many join for economic reasons, Jewett said. But a healthy percentage choose to join the military because they have traditional views on patriotism and service to country, and thus are more conservative.

Finally, many veterans have concerns about national security, and Republicans have supported higher military spending since President Ronald Reagan’s term.

But the high percentage of veterans leaning conservative is a relatively new trend, Jewett said. Historically, veterans were typically evenly split in support of both political parties because both Democrats and Republicans were equally supportive of a strong military, and equally anti-communist.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Democrats have become more liberal and Republicans more conservative. Thus, while conservative veterans used to feel just as comfortable with Democrats in office, they do not any longer and overwhelmingly support Republicans.

But veterans are not a monolithic voting bloc.

“Not every veteran is a conservative and not every conservative is a veteran,” Calandro said. “Veterans want to hear a candidate say they understand the importance of having a strong national defense, and that they support our troops.”

A Pew Research Center survey last year showed that while 29 percent of veteran voters are registered Republicans and 20 percent are Democrats, about 50 percent identify as independent or are registered with a third party. Of the independents, 30 percent say they lean Republican, and about 20 percent lean Democratic, according to the survey. 

Take Democrat Joseph Flynn,  for example.

Flynn, a Coast Guard veteran and resident of the Village of Poinciana, said veterans issues are a prime motivator for determining his vote.

“I’m a registered Democrat, but I vote for the candidate that I think will get the job done,” said Flynn. “I’d vote for a Republican or an independent candidate if I thought they would do a better job for veterans.”

What Veterans Want

In Jewett’s assessment, veterans are interested in many of the same big issues as other voters this election: immigration, health care, education and the economy. And in Florida, since about 50 percent of vets are over 65, or nearing retirement age, Social Security and Medicare also are quite important.

However, veterans have some more specific policy interests as well.

Many veterans are concerned with America’s foreign and defense policy including increasing funding for the military, especially pay for soldiers, and keeping America strong.

“When people ask me about specific candidates, they often ask where does this person stand on military, veteran’s issues, and a strong defense” Calandro  said.

Other concerns include veterans services like health care, counseling, rehabilitation and job and housing assistance.

Flynn, of the Village of Poinciana, is particularly invested in the VA health care system.

“I’m very concerned about the current proposal to privatize the VA health system,” he said. “From my perspective, the VA is above reproach and they provide superior care.”

Nelson is against privatization. Scott has not made any statements about his stance on privatizing the VA health care program to date.

“Veterans are very concerned about their benefits and mainly what’s going on with the VA,” said Al Varrone, American Legion Post 347 commander. “As veterans, we should look at the candidate that’s going to do the best job for us, regardless of which side of the aisle they’re on.” 

Frank Ross is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367, or frank.ross@thevillagesmedia.com.