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Analysis: Military Veterans Could Sway N.H. GOP Primary

Russell Sellers
Flickr Creative Commons

There are more than 113,000 military veterans in the state of New Hampshire. That’s about 8.5 percent of the total population. According to the Spring Granite State Poll, more than half of those may vote in the GOP Primary, rather than the Democratic Primary. For more on how veterans may vote in New Hampshire’s primary elections, we turn to Andrew Smith. He’s the director of the UNH Survey Center. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Your poll found that nearly 54 percent of veterans planned on voting in the GOP primary. Was this surprising to you?

Not really. If you looked at how voters think of themselves in terms of their party identification, we see fairly consistently that more than half of veterans or veteran households consider themselves Republican. So in our most recent poll, 55 percent considered themselves Republican, only 26 percent considered themselves Democrats. And if you look at how that breaks down among registered voters, it’s almost a three-to-one margin, and 37 percent of veterans say they are registered as Republicans. Only 12 percent say they’re registered as Democrats. So it’s not surprising that they’re choosing to vote in the Republican primary.

What did this poll tell you about veterans’ participation in the primary compared to the general population?

I think it’s going to be higher than the general population given their background, and given especially the importance of some veterans’ issues—certainly the VA, but also the ongoing wars, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think veterans are paying particular attention to that, and I think that’s why they’ve gone more recently in the last couple cycles Republican because Republicans have emphasized those foreign policy issues more so than have Democrats.

Are veterans currently saying which candidate they prefer?

I would say on the Republican side, it’s the same sort of mix that we see among regular voters. There’s no real leader. Among veterans, about 16 percent like Jeb Bush, about 14 percent like Marco Rubio. You get down to Rand Paul at about 8 percent or so. It’s not too much different than what you see among other voters. Scott Walker does pretty well, too, at 15 percent. It’s not that much different on the Republican side because we have so many candidates and it’s still so early that I don’t think any of the voters are paying that much attention and certainly haven’t decided who they’re going to support.

What kind of candidates do veterans as a group traditionally go for?

John McCain, for example, as a candidate did very well here. And I think that one of the things that you see among veterans is that they tend to like candidates who have either been veterans themselves or who have demonstrated experience in veterans’ issues, either the VA issues or on foreign policy issues.

In general, does having a lot of boots-on-the-ground fighting overseas change voter participation?

I don’t know that it changes the level of participation, but it certainly changes the interest that veterans might have in those conflicts. So if there are boots on the ground, veterans—they don’t want to be there, either. People in the military don’t really want to be there, and veterans I think feel that as well, if they’ve served in conflict. But at the same time, once we’re pulling back from these conflicts and some of these countries—Afghanistan and Iraq are not being as stable as we’d hoped—I think veterans get frustrated by that fact as well. They and their colleagues spent an awful lot of time and money and lives in these areas and were not seen as successful outcomes. So I think that’s one of the major reasons you’re likely to see higher turnout among veterans than you would think of among the general population.

How would you describe the level of influence veterans may have in the primary election this year?

Well, in a primary like the Republican primary, where there are going to be a lot of veterans voting, they could be an important group, and any candidate that can successfully reach out and galvanize that support—especially through some of the veterans’ organizations—I think will be able to do pretty well, especially since this year we have so many Republicans that are running. Among declared and potential republicans, we have close to 20 candidates, so someone could win with 25 percent of the electorate in the Republican Primary. And if they’re able to do particularly well among veterans, that might be the level of support that gets them over the top.

In your view, what will the candidates have to do to get the voters to the polls this February?

It’s certainly a matter of organization. Organization is key to any New Hampshire primary, and that means identifying voters, talking with them, making sure that the issues they’re interested in are being addressed. And then, come Election Day, making lots and lots of phone calls and email messages and even knocks on doors to get those people to the polls. But the message aspect is also important as well, and in this case I think speaking to veterans that are most important to them I think is going to be a critical factor. 

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