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Romney's Veteran Problem

[Guest post by Thomas Stackpole]

In the wake of Santorum’s bolstering victory in Colorado Tuesday night, where he carried the state by 5 and a half points, Michael Moschella of the Truman Institute, started circulating the theory that one of the deciding factors was the cluster of military personnel in the areas that Santorum carried (veterans make up 19 percent of the population in El Paso County, against a national average of 10 percent), and raising the inevitable question: Does Romney have a problem with veterans?

Moschella argues:

El Paso County is home to Colorado Springs and a top “military bastion” county in America. According to Wikipedia, El Paso County’s population surpassed Denver County in 2010, making it the most populous county in CO. The last Democrat to win it was LBJ.
So why does this matter? I think its noteworthy that Rick Santorum won El Paso County last night by a 16 point margin, 47-31, greatly outperforming his narrow victory in the rest of the state.
The next results will come from Maine, Michigan and Arizona. I’ll be checking to see if this trend continues in heavily military communities like Sagadahoc County Maine, home of the Bath Naval shipyard. Maine’s veteran population is 138K out of a total of 1.3 million citizens, and according to ME State Rep Alex Cornell du Houx, the veteran share of the overall vote is 17%. I imagine this will be even higher in the Republican primary.
If it does continue, this could pose a pretty big problem for Romney on Super Tuesday, with major military communities in VA, OH, OK, and GA expected to play a significant role in the Republican primary vote totals.

Romney's shilling on the military front comes across, not shockingly, as programmed and inauthentic. You might recall his blunder from the 2008 campaign when, in response to a question about why his sons weren’t serving in the military, he replied: “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected, because they think I’d be a great president.” This time around, he makes sure to interject in virtually every stump speech, often in jarring segues, a request that all the veterans in the audience raise their hands, followed by words of fulsome gratitude.

This isn’t a new problem for Romney, and if the coverage he’s receiving in veteran news outlets is any indication, it hasn’t gone away. A 2007 Gallup poll on the favorability of presidential candidates among vets notes that, “Veterans' affinity for Republican candidates is clear, with only Romney not rated substantially more positively than negatively by this group.” Respondents who were veterans felt slightly more positive about Romney than negative--a similar breakdown to Obama and John Edwards. While this might not lead us to start sounding alarm bells, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t bode well for him that he was running near even in a traditionally Republican population. The study goes on:

Overall, 49% of veterans identify with or lean to the Republican Party, compared with 41% who are Democratic in their political orientation. Among non-veterans, the figures are essentially reversed -- 50% Democratic and 39% Republican.
But veteran status can transcend political orientation. This is especially evident in ratings of McCain, who is rated more positively by veterans than non-veterans of the same party affiliation. Specifically, 63% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who served in the military rate McCain favorably, compared with 51% of Republicans who did not serve. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 43% of veterans and 35% of non-veterans rate McCain positively.

While the Romney-specific data is a bit musty at this point, it seems fair to assume that party divisions haven’t shifted too drastically since then, and what new data we do have reflects Romney as the second choice among military types. A New York Times chart of exit polls from South Carolina found that Gingrich scored 39 percent of both vets (identified as 21 percent of respondents) and non-vets. Romney carried 32 percent of veterans and 27 percent of non-vets; and Santorum did slightly worse, with 16 percent of the vet vote and 18 percent on the non-vet. It would seem that Santorum took the lion's share in Colorado. But realistically, if this is a problem, it won’t really hit until the general, when a lukewarm GOP base fails to show up, and Obama’s hawkish record will make a hard target for the guy who spent the Vietnam era in France. As Alec MacGillis has already noted, “I love the smell of croissants in the morning” just doesn’t have quite the same ring.