In the run-up to the South Carolina GOP primary, we wondered if John McCain would have problems attracting the support of veterans. True, the Arizona Senator has been a stalwart supporter of the troop surge, but his positions on other issues--amnesty for illegals; opposition to the Bush tax cuts, undercutting judicial nominees as part of the Gang of 14--have hurt his standing with conservative voters, a group that includes many military veterans.
Judging from Saturday's vote, it appears that South Carolina's large bloc of current and former military personnel broke solidly for McCain. As the State newspaper observed:
Though active and retired military make up about 14 percent of the population, they accounted for nearly one-quarter of all voters, with McCain claiming the most.
In other words, out of more than 360,000 votes in the state's Republican primary, military personnel--current and former---cast more than 90,000, with a solid majority going for McCain.
The strength of his support among that key demographic can be seen in a county-by-county breakout of Saturday's results, provided by the Charlotte Observer: Draw a triangle bounded by Myrtle Beach, Beaufort County (in the state's southeastern corner) and the state capital, Columbia. McCain carried most of the counties in that triangle, which includes portions of the Pee Dee and virtually the entire coastal region.
It's the same area that is home to the major military installations that dot the Palmetto State: Shaw and Charleston Air Force Bases; Marine Corps bases at Parris Island and Beaufort; naval facilities in the Charleston area and Fort Jackson, a sprawling Army post in Columbia. Thousands of active duty personnel live and vote in those counties, as do most of the state's military retirees.
Senator McCain's ability to tap into the military vote is a trend that bodes well for the upcoming GOP primary in Florida. The Sunshine State has an even larger military population, concentrated in the Panhandle, around Jacksonville, along the "Space Coast" near Patrick AFB, and in the Tampa Bay region.
Consider this: there are at least 170,000 military retirees in Florida alone, along with a substantial number of active duty personnel and a huge veteran population. If they turn out in numbers similar to those in South Carolina, the military vote in Florida could be decisive in delivering the state for McCain.
Clearly, the Senator's potential problems with the "vet vote" were the imaginary figment of various pundits (including your humble correspondent). Indeed, the McCain campaign deserves a lot of credit for playing to one of the candidate's genuine strengths. This "military strategy" won't work in all states, but it carried South Carolina, and may put Florida in the McCain column as well.
We also wonder if the Arizona Senator will send a thank-you note to Fred Thompson. By siphoning off support from Evangelicals, Thompson helped McCain turn back a strong challenge from Mike Huckabee.