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Military Families and Minority Votes

I've been intrigued for a while by the possibility that military families, whether active duty military or their relatives or veterans, might start to turn away from Bush over the experience of Iraq. This was first fully explored by Ryan Lizza in The New Republic a few weeks ago. The New York Times picked the issue up over the weekend.

Both Lizza and the Times note that there is little reliable data to understand the voting preferences of military families. It is always assumed that they are overwhelmingly Republican, but my favorite pollster, Celinda Lake, told me last fall that Democratic pollsters have written off military families for so long that there is no baseline to measure whether they are changing. If there is a shift against Bush, it will be hard to spot.

I'm curious, though, about something that goes one level deeper, and so there's probably even less solid data: What is the impact of the war, the long call-ups, the casualties, the reserve call-ups, and the feeble explanations from Bush on the attitudes of African-American and Hispanic military families? The U.S. Army is about one-third African-American, based on the last statistics I could find (they seemed to have stopped reporting these in the mid-1990s), and the other branches less so. The military has traditionally been one of the most important pathways to the middle class for minorities, in part because it can provide education and job training and make up for the failures of schools in minority communities.

It has also been a conservatizing force for African-Americans, as Colin Powell symbolizes. I think there are a few Republican strategists who know -- even if it's beyond them to actually achieve it -- that for the Republican Party to maintain its dominance in the years to come, it must make some inroads with minority voters. When the party is only getting five to ten percent of the black vote, there's a lot more upside potential there than with a white vote that the Republicans are already winning most of, especially among men. And I think those who knew that also understood that there are two institutions that can recruit African-Americans toward a more politically conservative political outlook and potentially the Republican Party: the church and the military. An underlying goal of the "Faith-Based Initiative," I believe, was to expand the role of churches, to bring them in league with the conservative agenda and to get people into the habit of thinking that it's the church, not government, that provides needed services.

As the Faith-Based Initiative has turned into more of a slush fund for right-wing evangelical groups, I think that not much of this has happened, although I could be very wrong. And as the Army and other branches of the Armed Forces turn into something that doesn't look quite as much like a job training and education program, I think it's likely that there will be a significant backlash among black military families, and probably Hispanic families as well. It may even extend to the military personnel themselves, who are generally assumed to be out of reach for Democrats. After all, African-Americans start off with deep hostility to Bush, they are less likely to have the deep deference that some of those quoted in the stories show ("I don't like this Iraq thing but I support the president because he's the president," to paraphrase), and they have always strongly opposed the Iraq war.

This is purely speculative and I'd love to find out there's real data on it. I think it's just one more reason the Republican Party's future is bleak.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 14, 2004 | Permalink


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Wow. I wrote on the same topic today on my blog, but not nearly in as much detail. Thanks for you insight.

Posted by: Alec | Apr 14, 2004 8:37:19 PM

You might note that the contrast between Kerry's military record and Bush's should make it easier for the Dems to make some inroads.

Posted by: rilkefan | Apr 14, 2004 9:41:57 PM

I've been meaning to make a similar post on this topic, based on my father (6 years USMC, over 3 in Vietnam, "Jane Fonda" was and is, literally, unmentionable in my house.) I was hesitant to broach the subject with him, butmy curiosity got the better of me over the weekend.

He's not too fond of Kerry ("too close to Ted Kennedy"); owns multiple guns and rifles; opposed Iraq because he felt sure the aftermath would resemble Vietnam (if there were credible WMD evidence, he supported invasion, destruction, and exit.) In short, he's no wishy-washy liberal.

I was surprised enough when I heard this from him that I wrote it down:"But I'll tell you one thing, Son. I don't think the current president is fit to lead this country." This was entirely the product of Bush's conduct and decisions in office, not Bush's lack of military service or AWOL allegations -- he voted for Bush in 2000.

Then he added that since "Mister Unsafe at Any Speed" is a nutball, he'd probably vote for Kerry. Unfortunately, he doesn't live in a swing state.


Posted by: Angry Bear | Apr 14, 2004 9:48:24 PM

I guess more will be known when (white) pollsters stop assuming and start asking (Black, Latino, white) servicemembers.

I can only speak anecdotally, but my shipmates in EUCOM are mighty pissed about this "situation" in Iraq, and are pissed that folks are being sent downrange with no clue as to what to do next. They are being led by folks who had "other priorities" when it was their turn to put on the uniform, yet the Democratic opposition appears utterly clueless in how to respond to the mendacity of the Right.

If you have a better answer, shoot a memo to the Kerry Campaign.

Posted by: didymous | Apr 22, 2004 4:18:52 PM

I get so tired of the political hyperbole and selective blindness of both sides (which is not to say I don't get it wrong myself sometimes...). Of course we have enormous issues within in our military. How many years did Republican and Democratic administrations alike look the other way while the military was sold as an avenue of access to a higher education and job skills? The idea that belonging to the military could mean that you might actually have to fight and kill people? Pshaw!! Sure, we still have lots of guys and gals who are up to whatever task they are called upon to perform, but there are others who really have no stomach for military action of any kind. Any rift we might see in the military is a sign of the rift in our society generally, where, on the one hand, we have people who seem to think that it's our job to export by force our 'values' to the rest of the world, and on the other hand, we have a growing group of people who couldn't or wouldn't fight or kill anyone for any reason whatsoever, even if that meant allowing members of their own family to be raped or killed. It would be nice to get back to having some semblance of common ground and unity in our country, but I don't know that we'll ever see that again. If 911 couldn't bring that about, what will?

Posted by: dan | Mar 13, 2005 3:51:14 PM