A movable force: the armed forces voting bloc

Early polls suggested there may be dramatic swings in voting behavior for a few key voting blocs on November 3rd. The most shocking prediction came in August from a Military Times Poll (in partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families) suggesting that former Vice President Biden was four points ahead of President Trump with active duty military members. For comparison, a similar poll in 2016 gave Trump a 29 point lead over Clinton with active duty military members. In the end, exit polls in 2016 suggested that veterans voted overwhelmingly for Trump by 27 points. Active duty military members and veterans are an institution of the Republican party leading many Democrats to ignore this voting group turning their attention toward others. A 31-point swing in the veteran voting bloc would suggest a significant crack in the base of the Republican party and an opening for the Democrats.

Still, veterans are a small share of the voting populace at just 6.6 percent of the adult population in the U.S. Both the Democratic and Republican parties might logically set their sights on and allocate a greater share of scarce campaign resources toward larger growing demographic groups such as the Hispanic population – nearly 2.5 times larger than the veteran population (about 16 percent of the adult population). Yet, when margins of victory are thin, small voting blocs can have an outsized impact.

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In 2016, Trump’s margin of victory was the closest in Michigan, winning by just 13,080 votes. With nearly 600 thousand veterans in Michigan (8.2 percent of the adult population), even a slight narrowing of the veteran gap in voting behavior could have moved Michigan to Clinton in 2016. Similarly, veterans comprise 8.6 percent of the adult population in Wisconsin at well over 300 thousand veterans in the state; Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by a slim margin of just 27,257 votes.

Reports of President Trump’s disparaging remarks referring to fallen service members that echoed his attacks against the late John McCain may have created the opening Biden needed to sway veterans. But President Trump’s support among military members showed signs of slipping well before. Polls show President Trump’s approval rating among active-duty military had been slowly declining since he first took office. Despite the decline, active-duty military members approval ratings remained higher than the general population in 2018. By 2019, approval ratings among active-duty military dropped further to be on par with the nation with military members expressing concerns that Trump does not listen to military leadership. Biden was well positioned to seize this opportunity. “Joe Biden is someone who has always been a champion for service member, veterans, and their families. It’s deeply personal to him as the father of an Iraq War veteran,” said Will Goodwin, the director of government relations for the group VoteVets.

Many may be too quick to discount veterans as an immovable monolithic voting bloc. The military population has been changing slowly over time with more women and minorities in their ranks including at the highest levels of leadership. The nation’s perceptions of military members and of veterans is outdated. Many non-veterans are surprised to find out that veterans out-earn non-veterans, on average, largely because they are more highly educated and more skilled than non-veterans. These misperceptions can hinder veterans in the workforce, but it can also lead political strategists and political hopefuls astray if they are too quick to discount them. Not Biden. In the closing months of the election, Biden took the time to hold roundtables with veterans in key swing states such as Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, exit polls in 2020 suggest Biden did not win the veteran vote, potentially further discouraging the Democratic party from future efforts to sway this demographic group. But Biden did narrow the veteran gap from a 27-point advantage to Trump in 2016 to just 7 percentage points in 2020, a 20 point swing! By narrowing this gap, Biden likely gained about 70,000 additional votes in Michigan, 43,000 in Wisconsin, 60,000 in Arizona, 82,000 in Georgia, and 97,000 in Pennsylvania. As the nation waited for Pennsylvania to finish counting votes moving on to counting absentee ballots from military members (used to waiting to have their ballots counted), reports came out that Biden won 4 out of 5 military ballots in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh).

When narrowing margins can win elections, neither political party should discount any voting bloc – yet, small voting blocs can only have a big impact if the larger voting blocs of the political base remain stalwart.