September 4, 2008, St. Paul, MN – Paul Galanti won’t be in the Xcel Energy Center tonight to witness his longtime friend accept the Republican nomination for president.
He was invited, but he chose instead to continue his work in Richmond recruiting veterans to vote for his “guy,” U.S. Sen. John McCain.
“Everyone I know who’s ever worn a uniform will vote for McCain ” and each of them controls two or three other votes, said Galanti, who leads the presumptive GOP nominee’s veteran outreach effort in Virginia.
He is certain that many of the state’s 807,000 veterans favor McCain’s brand of stiff-jawed fortitude and experience to lead the country as a wartime president.
But political analysts warn there are reasons to believe those votes may not be as assured as they have been for past Republicans.
One is the “general frustration with the war in Iraq,” which could dampen enthusiasm among a voting bloc that is GOP-leaning, said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.
“The military vote is more in play than it has been in recent elections,” Kidd said.
Perhaps sensing that, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign has established its own veteran-outreach network to court voters in Virginia and beyond.
Still, McCain is viewed as the favorite among that group, and experts give the Arizona senator an advantage in vote-rich Hampton Roads, home to 110,000 military personnel.
Galanti, who like McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, believes that veterans and active-duty men and women will relate to McCain’s narrative and that their votes will help deliver Virginia for him.
McCain, a naval aviator, was held as a POW for more than five years after his aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam in October 1967. His captors did not provide proper medical care to treat the injuries he suffered escaping the plane. Both his arms and one leg were broken. They also repeatedly beat him and kept him in solitary confinement most of the time.
After his release, he continued his Navy career, retiring in 1981. His honors include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Galanti, a retired naval commander who spent 30 years in the military, including nearly seven years as a POW, predicted McCain will win a decisive victory over Obama.
“I don’t think it’s going to be close,” he said.
The large population of veterans and active-duty military seems to favor McCain.
America has 24 million veterans, and as many as 70 million citizens may be eligible for some type of veterans benefits. Another 2.3 million people are active-duty military members or their voting-age family members living in the United States or abroad.
Those voters are hardly monolithic, however.
“Veterans are a diverse lot, and you have to look at them and their situations in many different ways,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
Individual veterans will likely factor their gender, race and era of service into how they vote, Sabato said, mentioning that black veterans “admire” McCain but will be “strongly in Obama’s corner.”
But blacks account for only about one-tenth of the nation’s veteran population and one-fifth of the active-duty ranks.
By comparison, whites are fourth-fifths of all living veterans and make up three-quarters of the total active-duty population.
Those numbers reflect overall population trends. While polling shows Obama with a strong lead among blacks, McCain remains ahead among whites, who are a larger share of the electorate.
Likewise, the candidates’ ages seem to provide a boost to McCain, 72, among veterans and a boost to Obama, 47, among active-duty personnel, if primary voting trends and polling hold true.
Roughly 40 percent of veterans are over 65, while the average age of active-duty men and women is 28. Almost half of all active-duty personnel are between 22 and 30.
For Mary Frances “Francie” Golden, a Navy veteran from Virginia Beach, McCain’s military background makes him the right choice.
“Where the rubber meets the road, I need someone to make the hard decisions that has experience and expertise in the military,” said Golden, who served under McCain in 1977.
She said that McCain’s presence in the Senate when her husband and daughter were deployed to Iraq in 2002 gave her some reassurance they would return safely.
Obama, who has never served in the military, had not yet been elected to his U.S. Senate seat from Illinois when Congress in 2002 passed a resolution authorizing military action in the Middle East.
A candidate’s military service, or lack thereof, isn’t always an indicator of how veterans and active-duty personnel will vote.
Military voters favored President Bush, who served in the Air National Guard, over U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, by a margin of 57 percent to 41 percent, according to 2004 exit polls.
This time, voters with military backgrounds favor McCain over Obama by a 56-37 margin, according to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll.
By contrast, troops stationed overseas have contributed more money while out of the country to Obama than to McCain this election cycle, according to a recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Not conceding Virginia’s military vote, the Obama campaign is reaching out to those voters through events such as Michelle Obama’s meeting with military spouses in Norfolk last month.
Frank McKinney, a Virginia Beach Vietnam vet and one-time Republican, favors Obama.
McKinney, who retired as a commander after 30 years in the Navy, said Obama “puts the interests of the troops who have sacrificed so much at the front of his priorities,” including the Democrat’s pledge to bring home many in the Middle East if elected.