Some troops see Obama as the best bet

Susman and Spiegel are Times staff writers.

Presidential election exit polls showed that the economy was uppermost on the minds of most Americans. But when Baghdad-based Army Maj. Ian Howard cast his ballot, his top concern was whether this would be his last deployment to Iraq.

So Howard, a lifelong Republican, threw his support to Barack Obama, who has advocated a swift withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“I don’t want to come back here for another tour,” Howard said Wednesday. “Obama gives me confidence I won’t be back here in two, three or four years.”


Experts who have researched voting trends within the military say there is little conclusive data on the political choices of active-duty service members, largely because their numbers are too small to show up in nationwide electoral surveys such as the Gallup Poll.

But slivers of data -- such as exit polling of military veterans and campaign contribution lists -- suggest that support for Republican presidential candidates within the U.S. military has declined over the last eight years, enabling Obama to increase Democrats’ take of the military vote Tuesday.

“The military, over time, tracks with civilian society,” said Peter D. Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University and author of a book on military voting. “You put it all together, and my best guess, my educated guess, is that Obama did better than [John] Kerry did -- but he didn’t win the military demographic.”

Without scientific polling -- because the Pentagon, which frequently reports on troops’ views on their housing and healthcare, shies away from partisan questions to avoid politicization -- researchers are left to rely on anecdotal and voluntary surveys to get a sense of where the military vote is moving.

In Tuesday’s election, 15% of voters were military veterans, and 54% of them voted for John McCain -- a 3-point decrease from Bush’s take in 2004, according to the National Election Pool exit poll.

In addition, campaign support for Democratic presidential candidates also increased during the just-ended election cycle. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political donations, said that through 2007, Democrats received 40% of the $804,000 in contributions from uniformed service members, up from 18% in 2000.

The center said that by the end of August 2008, Obama had received more money from military donors with overseas addresses -- $74,650 compared with $16,600 for McCain -- as well as from employees of the uniformed branches: $340,400 compared with $321,500.

The most comprehensive look at the military vote is an annual survey by the privately owned Military Times newspaper, which in a voluntary poll of 4,300 subscribers in September found overwhelming support for McCain, 68%, compared with 23% for Obama.

But Feaver noted that the Military Times surveys tend to target older officers, who are far more conservative than younger enlisted personnel.

It is a factor that seemed clear Wednesday in east Baghdad, where six of seven soldiers at a base interviewed at random said they backed Obama.

1st Lt. James Talbott, an Alaskan who expressed concern about McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, chose Obama, as did Sgt. Samuel Smith, who saw Obama as the candidate who could best change America’s course.

The seventh, Staff Sgt. Tracie Ward, wouldn’t say whom she had favored, but she smiled brightly as the TV in the dining hall showed returns coming in late in the U.S. as troops here were sitting down to breakfast.

Aaron Belkin, a University of California political science professor who studies military attitudes, said the willingness of U.S. troops in Baghdad to speak openly Wednesday about their preferences for Obama was in itself a shift.

“There is a long-standing norm among the troops that if you’re a liberal or a Democrat, you need to stay in the closet about that,” Belkin said. “The fact that you’re seeing service members openly discussing their support for Obama represents a significant change in military culture.”

Though young enlistees appear to have similar voting patterns to their college-bound peers, Feaver said, the military as a whole still tends to lean toward the Republican Party.

To McCain supporters, the Vietnam veteran’s familiarity with the military was an important factor in their vote.

“John McCain has a much better idea of what the current situation is, and what the consequences are if we leave too soon,” said Army Maj. Olaf Shibusawa, a reservist who was in Iraq this year but has returned to the United States. He said that even though he knew an Obama victory probably would mean fewer deployments and less time away from home, he couldn’t shake the sense that McCain’s character is stronger.

Army Capt. Steven McGregor, currently serving in Iraq, was also swayed by McCain’s wartime experience in comparison with Obama’s platform.

“Obama,” he said, “is obsessed with an exit strategy and a timeline.”