DAYTON, Ohio — As the presidential election nears, veterans are most focused on possible cuts in national defense, finding jobs after their deployments end and getting health care coverage, according to interviews conducted by the Dayton Daily News.
Veterans form a sizable voting bloc and are key to Mitt Romney’s quest to replace President Barack Obama as the nation’s commander in chief. But although veterans traditionally support Republican candidates, there are indications the margin is closing.
In May, a Gallup poll found veterans favored Romney over Obama, 58 percent to 34 percent.
But in Ohio, where polls show Obama has a lead of four to 10 points, veterans appear less satisfied with the Republican nominee. In the latest NBC/Marist Poll, which was taken in early September, Romney led Obama among veterans by 53 percent to 41 percent.
Political campaigns aren’t built around getting the military vote, but neither side wants to be viewed as weak on defense.
Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University in Ohio, said veterans have clout that goes beyond their sheer numbers.
“They tend to be committed voters, they tend to be high information voters, and they tend to be people who are influential to others,” he said.
In the 2008 election, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona led Obama by about 10 percentage points in the final tally. Smith said Obama gained traction from voter fatigue with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The November election marks the first time in 80 years that no one on either ticket can claim military service. But the veterans interviewed did not see that as a crucial issue. More important, they said, is where the candidates stand on issues.
The Obama camp has touted ending the war in Iraq, pulling U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, repealing the ban on gay troops serving openly, and increasing spending on veterans health and benefit needs.
Romney vows to reverse defense budget reductions and missile defense cuts, replace aging military weapon systems, add 100,000 active-duty troops, expand the Department of Veterans Affairs outreach to rural veterans through online services, and ease a backlog of claims, among other priorities.
Albert T. Link, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant, counts himself among voters leaning toward Romney.
“I’m concerned about the defense of the country and the things they are doing or not doing to project strength rather than weakness,” said Link, 76. “If I see that in an individual, he won’t get my vote.”
The growing prospect of $500 billion in automatic, across-the-board defense cuts over a decade bothers Link, a Vietnam veteran. “If the sequester goes through, we’re done as a military force and we’ll go back to pre-1942 levels in almost every area,” he said.
Those automatic cuts, known as sequestration, also concern retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a Republican who teaches military history at Ohio State University and served as executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan.
The president should show more leadership to bring all sides to the table to reach a deal before the automatic cuts start Jan. 2, Mansoor said. His concerns make him a likely Romney voter. “It’s really not based on foreign affairs as much as it’s based on the fiscal health of the country,” he said.
Luis Luiggi, 28, an Afghanistan veteran and Wright State student who serves in the Navy Reserve, backs Obama.
“As a student and a veteran and a homeowner, I support Barack Obama because I think he’s moving the country in the right direction,” said Luiggi, who lives in Huber Heights, Ohio. “He’s making it easier for veterans to find work after their tours of duty.”
Luiggi, who has appeared on stage with Joe Biden at Wright State, said Obama would be more thoughtful than Romney about sending troops into battle. He gives Obama high marks for sending Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan and using unmanned aerial vehicle strikes on suspected terrorists. He faulted Romney for not mentioning Afghanistan in his convention acceptance speech.
Joseph DiFalco, an Air Force and Ohio Air National Guard veteran and leader of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 657 in the Dayton area, hasn’t picked a candidate yet. But he said he wants someone who’s strong on foreign policy.
“Romney, I don’t think he has any record as far as foreign policy goes and I think President Obama’s track record on foreign policy is horrible,” he said.
DiFalco said the United States “led from behind” during the Arab Spring uprising in Libya.
However, both he and Luiggi gave the Obama administration credit for spending more on veterans.
“I actually think the current administration has done a great job with that and I think Governor Romney’s administration would continue with that,” DiFalco said.