President Barack Obama is trying hard to win veterans, but it looks like they'd prefer a new commander in chief.
The Obama campaign had been hoping that veterans and their families -- especially among the post-Sept. 11 generation that served in Iraq and Afghanistan -- would be part of their path to victory: They're a high turn-out demographic and concentrated in battleground states, with nearly 1 million each in North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, and 1.6 million in Florida.
But recent polls make clear that the president's campaign is losing the battle. Even as Obama leads in Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, Mitt Romney is up by double digits among veterans in those states. Nationwide, he's got a commanding 20-percentage-point lead over Obama and has even overtaken the president with younger veterans.
"It's no contest," said Maurice Tamman, a Reuters data news editor who has polled on veterans and the presidential campaign.
Obama's campaign has been trying to improve on a historical Democratic disadvantage on national security and among veterans by touting the killing of Osama bin Laden, ending Iraq combat operations and winding down the war in Afghanistan. They've also been talking up the administration's attention to veterans' benefits and efforts spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama, hoping to appeal not just to the troops but to the spouses and other military family members who have coped with long separations and multiple deployments.
Instead, even as Obama has been gaining in the overall polls, several NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls conducted from Sept. 9-11 had Romney well ahead of Obama among veterans in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. And in Colorado, a poll released Sept. 16 by SurveyUSA and the Denver Post found both veterans and military families supporting Romney over Obama 53 percent to 39 percent in a survey that included third-party candidates.
Back in May, Obama had the lead among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. But a Reuters/Ipsos poll from September says that's evaporated, with Romney now up 48 percent to 34 percent.
Obama campaign aides said the slip in the polls needs to be considered alongside recent surveys showing the president ahead of Romney on questions regarding foreign policy, leadership and keeping the country safe from terrorist attacks. In the campaign's final weeks, Obama will try to close the gap among veterans by pressing Romney over several foreign policy stumbles as well as a lack of specifics on his plans for troops.
Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman, said the Republican's lead among veterans comes from their resistance to the looming potential defense cuts under the budget sequester, problems with Obama's foreign policy positions and the backdrop of the stagnant economy that's left the post-Sept. 11 generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with a difficult time finding work when they return home.
Obama's veterans-outreach efforts have been "failing because voters understand that his defense cuts threaten our position as a global power, unemployment for returning veterans is at an unacceptable level, and the VA system is breaking under a backlog of disability claims that has doubled on his watch," Williams said.
Ray Kelley, national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he expects Obama will have some success this fall with the post-Sept. 11 generation of veterans because of the Iraq War and his programs for returning troops. But older veterans -- the majority conservative white males -- will probably stick with Romney, and that's despite Obama's work on many of their issues.
"President Obama has done great things for vets. The budget nearly doubled the last four to five years. Services are better. There's more access. But that isn't necessarily translating," Kelley said. "We still have veterans who are waiting for their disability claims. They're feeling disenchanted and that somehow the current administration must be at fault even though it's a long, systemic problem."
"I think just [Romney's] strong rhetoric: 'We're going to keep a strong national defense. We want to make sure troops have what they want.' For some reason, that outweighs that the current administration has done a lot for veterans," Kelley added.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Clo Ewing predicted that the president's standing among veterans would improve by November, flagging a Zogby poll released Monday that puts Obama up 14 points with a small sample of active-duty military and their family members.
Ewing also knocked the Republican's omission of the Afghanistan troops "during the most important speech of his career" at last month's Republican National Convention in Tampa and swung at Romney for proposing a voucher program for veterans benefits. "Mitt Romney hasn't shown he will stand up for the military family and veterans community," she said.
Harry Prestanski, executive director of Ohio Veterans United, a group of mostly conservative veterans that endorsed Romney in August, said he was troubled by Romney's omission of Afghanistan. But Romney's promise to postpone historic budget cuts to the Pentagon matters more to him and many other veteran voters in Ohio, a state where about 100,000 jobs are connected to the defense industry.
"Those ring more true than to stand up there and say we recognize our veterans and our military," Prestanski, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, said. "I'd rather have them put in place programs that are going to protect our military today than beat our breast and say we did a good job for them."
With both major party tickets without a veteran for the first time in nearly 80 years, Obama's campaign is leaning on surrogates who have served. On a conference call organized by the Obama campaign last week, former Reps. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) and John Boccieri (D-Ohio), both Iraq War veterans, slammed Romney and Senate Republicans for blocking a bill aimed at helping returning troops get jobs as police officers, firefighters and park workers.
Vice President Joe Biden's son, Beau, the Delaware attorney general and an Iraq War veteran, has also been criticizing Romney as he speaks to veterans in swing states like Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. At a recent event that included World War II veterans, Beau Biden told the group that under Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's House budget plan they would see their services diminished "at a moment of their lives when they need care the most."
Obama's campaign wants to increase turnout among younger veterans thanks to the repeal of the ban on gays in the military under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- the president issued a statement last Thursday marking the one-year anniversary of that decision -- and also win over the recently enlisted who can benefit from the post-Sept. 11 GI Bill and other education and career placement benefits.
"You can't think of the veteran community as one big monolith," said Rob Diamond, the director of Veterans and Military Families for Obama and a former Navy officer. "It's very diverse in terms of the generations, of the wars folks served in, where they live and the service they are a part of."
Jay Leve, editor of SurveyUSA, said the Obama campaign hasn't lost the veteran vote quite yet, noting that fast-developing news events around the world have the power to shake up the race among what's typically a very patriotic audience.
"Events in the Middle East may trump Romney's success to date with military families. If the entire region explodes, military families may gravitate to Obama as part of a rising tide of support for the existing commander in chief," he wrote in an email. "Obama is the devil voters know."
In the meantime, there's a possible benefit for the Obama campaign to keep up the messaging to veterans even if the veterans aren't responding as the campaign would like. Democrats note that it helps undercut long-standing GOP attacks that they are soft on national security while also helping Obama connect with broader segments of the general public, including independents, blue-collar white males and older women.
"Talking about vets appeals to everyone," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
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