The Powell Endorsement,the Military Vote and the Candidate's Wife
Barack Obama is going to make inroads with military voters--if you believe the pundit class.
Just moments after Colin Powell announced his support for the Democratic presidential nominee, NBC talking heads Joe Scarborough and Andrea Mitchell suggested that the endorsement of the retired general (and former Secretary of State) would translate into more military votes.
From the transcript of their appearance on "Meet the Press," the same program where General Powell revealed his support for Senator Obama:
MR. BROKAW: [Joe] You're very familiar with Florida. Will Colin Powell have much of an impact on that state, which is much more in play now?
MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, sure, sure it will. I mean, one of the reasons why John McCain shocked Mitt Romney--remember the last two or three days most people thought Mitt Romney was going to win Florida. There is a huge military population in Florida and a very large retired military population in Florida. Colin Powell's endorsement helps him probably more in Florida than any other state.
MR. BROKAW: Andrea Mitchell, is it enough for the Obama campaign just to get this endorsement this morning, or will they try to use him in ads and try to pull him out on the trail as well?
MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, they're not going to be able to pull him out on the trail. He made that very clear to you, Tom. But it makes a difference--to expand on what Joe said--it makes a difference with the military in North Carolina and Virginia, two other states that have really big military populations; conceivably, also, in South Carolina as well.
Unfortunately, that theory has more holes than a target on a Marine rifle range. This blog has analyzed the military vote at length, and quite frankly, we don't see the troops breaking for Obama.
Consider the results of a recent survey conducted for the Military Times newspapers. According to that poll, career military officers and NCOs back John McCain by a 68-23% margin. A breakout of the data indicates that the only armed forces demographic where Obama has a majority is among African-Americans, who indicated that race was a key factor in their support.
Not surprisingly, the Times poll never came up during the NBC round table. That's hardly a surprise; as far as we can tell, neither Scarborough nor Ms. Mitchell served in the military, and it's doubtful they peruse military publications on a regular basis.
If they spent a little more time with members of the armed forces, the pundits would discover that the endorsements of retired flag officers have little sway over the military vote. While there is wide respect for Colin Powell in the armed services, it's difficult to imagine any officer, NCO, or junior enlisted member switching their vote on the basis of his endorsement.
It's no accident that John McCain enjoys wide support among military voters. They respect his decades of service to the nation and his own sacrifice as a POW in North Vietnam. They also understand that Senator McCain has a long record of supporting military personnel and their families. More importantly, members of the armed forces realize that Mr. McCain is ready to be Commander-in-Chief, and won't require "on the job training," borrowing Joe Biden's famous line on Barack Obama.
We also suspect that General Powell's stated reasons for backing the Democratic nominee-- including his concern about the "tone" of the GOP campaign--have little resonance among members of the armed forces and their families. If you've served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, you probably have other electoral priorities--say, ensuring that your hard-won victories on the ground aren't squandered by the next administration.
In our experience, military voters are exceptionally perceptive--far better informed than the public as a whole. Their political allegiances are largely based on the party (and candidates) that have traditionally supported them. That's why the vast majority of the armed forces will pull the lever for John McCain on election day.
Still, the Obama campaign keeps trying. The Politico's Mike Allen is touting Michelle Obama's outreach to military families, suggesting that it might become her "signature" cause as First Lady.
“Michelle Obama's focus on military families puts her at the leading edge of the Democratic nominee's campaign to reclaim some of the military vote from Republicans – an effort that brought Barack Obama here Sunday for a rally near Fort Bragg, where a military wife introduced him … Since the start of the campaign, Michelle Obama says she has focused on three things: keeping life normal for her young daughters, electing her husband, and discussing the work-life balance with women around the country. The spouses of service members captured her attention during a roundtable with working mothers, and she later hosted her first military-focused event in Fayetteville in May, a day before the North Carolina primary. She will hold her seventh military spouses meeting Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla., following similar events in recent months in states heavily impacted by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including Virginia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.”
Mr. Allen is a fine political reporter, who's generally fair in his coverage. Still, we'd offer him the same advice as the pundits at NBC. Take a closer look at these events--and their reception--before predicting that Obama will reclaim even a small portion of the military vote.
As we reported two months ago, Ms. Obama's "military forums" are nothing more than cleverly-contrived campaign events, similar to the rallies staged by her husband and John McCain. When Michelle Obama came to Norfolk in August, reporter Karen Jowers of Military Times discovered that forum participants were Obama campaign workers or supporters.
Again, there's nothing wrong with that. Packing your event with friendly crowds is the essence of smart politics.
But a little truth in advertising is also required. Media outlets have been incredibly disingenuous in depicting these "forums" as some sort of free-flowing exchange with military families. In reality, Ms. Obama is simply answering soft-ball questions from supporters.
If the prospective first lady is genuinely interested in a dialogue with members of the armed forces, she might have asked for a private meeting with the Officer's or NCO's Wives Club at any military installation. And hold the event without cameras or the media--just as George Bush has done in countless sessions with the families of troops killed or wounded on active duty.
But that's not the type of event that the Obama campaign is looking for. The military forums are also aimed at "softening" the image of Michelle Obama, who was widely criticized for saying that America is a "mean" place, and that she was "never proud of her country" until her husband sought the presidency. Giving Mrs. Obama the "military family portfolio" is one way to depict her as less strident and more compassionate.
We have no interest in sitting through carefully-scripted campaign events, but we'd pay major bucks for a front row seat at a real military forum with Michelle Obama. We wonder how she'd react when a member of the armed services (or a spouse) asked the candidate's wife if her husband is advocating surrender in Iraq, or why the nominee didn't mention the military as an acceptable form of public service in the early months of his campaign.
Now that would be an event worth attending.