Kevin Dellicker stays away from politics when he reports for duty at the National Guard armory in Harrisburg, Pa. But out of uniform, the captain in the Pennsylvania National Guard does everything he can to persuade the people he served with in Iraq to reelect President Bush.
Shaking some of the same hands as Dellicker is Jonathan Soltz, a former Army captain recently returned from Iraq who spends his days pleading with soldiers to vote for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee.
In the swing state of Pennsylvania, where both live, the votes of those in the military -- including more than 15,000 reservists -- who are serving or have served in Iraq or Afghanistan are much in demand.
But which way the people fighting the war will vote in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is anybody’s guess.
Tight restrictions on seeking the votes of active-duty military personnel, along with taboos in the military culture against the open expression of political views, make it tough for candidates to target military voters -- and make it tough for pollsters to figure them out.
Historically, military turnout in elections has been low.
With more than 400,000 troops overseas now, many living in difficult and dangerous conditions, it is not clear whether those who want to vote this fall will succeed. A Pentagon initiative meant to make it easier for troops to cast absentee ballots via the Internet and by fax is being criticized as vulnerable to tampering.
All that has left the Bush and Kerry campaigns working the edges of a potential voting bloc that could be significant in a tight election.
“It’s very hard to get a read on how the active-duty personnel are reacting to the war politically, because they are so busy reacting on the ground,” Soltz said. “So what I do -- I talk to my friends, tell them to e-mail their friends about Kerry; I talk to people like me who are out of the service now. I’m not going to go give a speech to a group of soldiers. It’s not the thing they want to hear while they’re just trying to keep their lives together.”
Political activity in the military is -- like much else -- strictly regulated.
Troops are not prohibited from expressing political opinions, but they are not allowed to work for partisan political organizations while in the military. Campaigning is prohibited at military facilities, and the rules for conducting polls among active-duty troops are so cumbersome that pollsters have generally given up.
“As a society, we rely on the apolitical loyalties and professionalism of the military -- we entrust them with capabilities that we don’t give anyone else -- and in exchange for that we demand total political neutrality from them,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who studies military voting patterns.
“We seek to avoid creating a partisan voting bloc in the military that is wooed or courted the way that soccer moms are. So for that reason the government doesn’t ask questions itself, and they restrict the access of anyone else to do so.”
More is known about how veterans lean politically: Polls show they tend to vote Republican.
Because of that, it has long been presumed that the active military also leans Republican. A poll by Army Times of its readers in December found that more supported the administration than did not. But the poll did not ask respondents for whom they would vote. Its pollsters acknowledged that its readers tended to be older, career soldiers, rather than enlisted personnel, 35% of whom are black and Latino -- groups that among civilians tend to vote Democratic.
This year, both presidential campaigns have infused their efforts with military imagery, and the experience of both Bush and Kerry during the Vietnam War era is under scrutiny.
A parade of retired generals at the Democratic and Republican conventions endorsed one candidate or the other. Kerry opened his speech with a salute. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have regularly visited military bases, and Kerry meets with veterans, reservists and military families. Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, parlays her background as the daughter of a career soldier into regular chats with military families.
“The political appeals to this broad category of people somehow associated with the military [have] not been this overt in decades,” said Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “But of the leanings of active-duty military, the people in the fight, the candidates are as stumped as the pollsters.”
Both parties are pushing overseas voter registration, including that of military personnel. The Bush campaign is deeply aware that military absentee ballots may have helped swing Florida -- and the election -- for Bush in 2000. Democrats, meanwhile, are predicting that more of the military vote will go their way this November because long tours of duty and heavy casualties have antagonized a growing number of military families.
“This time around, the Democrats are convinced that the advantage among military voters won’t be nearly as big for the GOP,” said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. “They also think that in a post- 9/11 election, how can the Democrats show that they’re tough on national security? If they can win the military and veterans endorsement race, then that can serve symbolically as proof that they are good on national security.”
Pentagon attempts to improve voter turnout among soldiers overseas have generated considerable controversy.
In February, the Pentagon dropped a $22-million plan to test Internet voting for 100,000 military workers and civilians overseas. After a panel of experts cited security concerns, the agency said it could not ensure the legitimacy of online votes.
Subsequently, the Defense Department said that members of the military would be allowed to vote by faxing or e-mailing their vote, but only after waiving their right to a secret ballot. Under the Pentagon plan, a contractor, Omega Technologies, will accept the ballots on a toll-free line, then send them to appropriate local elections offices.
But under that system, the contractor, the Pentagon and county officials would all know which candidates individual military voters had chosen.
Critics have pointed out that Omega’s chief executive, Patricia Williams, has donated $6,000 in this election cycle to the National Republican Congressional Committee and serves on the committee’s business advisory council. They say such partisanship leaves open the possibility that votes will be tampered with, as does the nonsecret ballot.
Missouri and North Dakota will allow e-mail voting by the military. Twenty other states will permit faxed ballots, also to be handled by Omega.
In Pennsylvania, which has sent more reservists to Afghanistan and Iraq than all but five other states, and which has had more war deaths than any other presidential swing state, the Bush and Kerry campaigns are pulling hard for the military vote.
Dellicker, the guardsman, said the local Bush campaign organization he volunteers for had compiled an extensive e-mail list, primarily through word of mouth, of active-duty troops. The campaign uses the list to send regular updates on campaign events and issues.
“I don’t pester my colleagues at my base, because that would be inappropriate. But if I have colleagues, you’d better believe that I’m going to talk to them about [the election] when out of uniform and in an appropriate setting,” Dellicker said.
Soltz, the Army veteran, said he arranged for Iraq veterans in Pennsylvania to speak in favor of Kerry at veterans halls.
“I talk all the time to these guys. I have friends who aren’t even back from Iraq yet who wish they could get back and tell people what they’ve seen, what they know,” Soltz said. “I know there are people like me working for Bush driving these roads too. The question is, who are soldiers listening to?”