When national Republican officials began making a big play to leverage the military vote, a natural constituency for the party, they were happily surprised to learn Donald Trump’s campaign already had a list with the names of 25,000 veterans who liked him.
“That’s a good number,” said Bob Carey, director of military and veterans outreach for the Republican National Committee, said last week.
Now, the Trump campaign’s strategy of banking on veterans and military voters to help amass enough votes to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton is in jeopardy thanks to tensions over his comments about Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in action.
“I’m undecided now. I was leaning for him, but the last few days, what he’s been saying about that soldier and his parents, he’s made several comments I don’t like,” said Larry Fountain, a 67-year-old Navy veteran and retired pipe fitter from Starks, Louisiana, who listened to both Trump and Clinton speak at the VFW’s national convention in North Carolina last week. “I just don’t know.”
Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who served in the Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Wednesday he wouldn’t vote for Trump. He’d been wary of the nominee, and the final straws were Trump’s NATO stance, his blaming former President George W. Bush for the Sept. 11 attacks, and then “this unbelievable spat with the family of a fallen soldier.”
“Donald Trump is beginning to cross a lot of red lines of the unforgivable in politics. I’m not going to support Hillary, but in America we have the right to write somebody in or skip the vote,” Kinzinger told CNN. “I just don’t see how I get to Donald Trump anymore.”
Active-duty personnel, veterans, and their families are the second-largest voting bloc after Hispanics, and the only group that consistently votes Republican.
The limited available polling suggests Trump has weaker support than John McCain or Mitt Romney, the party’s two most recent presidential candidates, said John Noonan, who was national security adviser for Romney.
Trump is up 14 points over Clinton with veterans, 53 percent to 39 percent, according to a Fox News poll released Wednesday. McCain was 22 points ahead at this juncture in the 2008 race with registered voters who had served in the U.S. military; Romney was up 24 points in May 2012, Gallup polling showed.
“Trump will have to over-perform with veterans to overcome his deficiencies with Hispanics, African-Americans, women, and college-educated whites,” Noonan said.
Carey said the RNC was working hand-in-hand with the Trump campaign to leverage the power of the veterans vote in battleground states with a strong military presence, including Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Trump aides said their plan remained unchanged, and maintained Trump would do very well with the military vote.
“He has made reforming the Veterans Administration and helping veterans economically and otherwise a cornerstone of his campaign,” campaign adviser Kellyanne Conway said.
Before the Fox poll, the last scientific public survey of veterans’ views was done in May by Morning Consult and had Trump winning by just 9 points.
An unscientific Military Times survey in early July had Trump with 49 percent to Clinton’s 21 percent with active-duty service members. It also showed dislike for Trump, with 55 percent saying they had an unfavorable view of him.
Polling by Deep Root Analytics detected Trump struggling with veterans in late May and early June, said company co-founder Alex Lundry, a GOP strategist.
The national micro-targeting survey of 7,300 registered voters discovered higher levels of support for a generic Republican than for Trump, and there’s a disproportionately large number of veterans in this group, Lundry said.
“He should be running away with them,” Lundry said.
Trump offended some in the military community again Tuesday when he said at an event in Virginia that a veteran gave him his medal for being wounded in action. “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier,” Trump said.
“God willing, this is it. I think this is going to explode,” said John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert and retired lieutenant colonel who served in the Iraq War.
“Nobody who has any understanding of combat wants a Purple Heart,” Nagl, who lives in Pennsylvania, said. “To make a statement like that demonstrates an ignorance of the realities of combat and an inability to properly understand the sacrifices of people who put themselves in harm’s way.”
In interviews after Trump’s rally Friday in the big military town of Colorado Springs, a dozen veterans and their families said that despite Trump’s shortcomings, including allegations of draft-dodging, they believe he’s genuine when he says he loves veterans.
“Do I like him? No,” said Glant Havenar, secretary of the Colorado Parents’ Association of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. “He’s kind of a buffoon. But as the mom of a military son, I don’t have a choice but to vote for Trump. I don’t trust Hillary at all.”
Some said when Trump speaks negatively about Muslims, it doesn’t necessarily hurt him with conservative military members who worry about domestic terrorism and the possible threat from refugees.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican former Army captain, wouldn’t say what he thinks about Trump. “But I’ll tell you what. We don’t need the Clintons back,” Bevin said at a Colorado retreat earlier this week hosted by billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch. “The disregard for the rule of law, the cynicism, the lying, the outright blatant disregard for truth—we don’t need it. If that gives you some indication of where my head is.”
Veterans and active-duty military members are faithful voters, and will make up 16 percent of the total expected voter population in the 2016 race, said Chris Wilson, who was director of research and analytics for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.
Of the 21.8 million veterans in the country, 15 million are registered to vote, Wilson said. Of the 1.3 million active-duty personnel, 1 million are registered to vote, and of those, 59 percent are expected to vote, Wilson said. “Historically, it stays consistent,” he said.
“Any Republican needs to be between 60 and 70 percent of the military vote,” Wilson said. Trump is under-performing, he said.
The Fox poll was conducted July 31-Aug. 2, so news of Trump’s criticism of Muslim-American soldier Humayun Khan’s parents, which broke July 30, would have begun to seep into the results. Sixty percent of the veterans surveyed said Clinton had the knowledge to be an effective president and 39 percent said she didn’t; 52 percent said the same of Trump, while 47 percent said he didn’t have the knowledge. The margin of error was plus or minus 8 percentage points.
When all registered voters were asked about Trump’s response to the Khans’ comments, 69 percent indicated Trump was “out of bounds.” Nineteen percent said he was in bounds.
Some veterans say they’re offended that Trump questioned a mother’s pain by implying that her Muslim faith kept her from speaking on a national stage, and disrespected the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the line of duty by saying that he made sacrifices in his line of work as a real-estate developer.
Trump has refused to back down, arguing he had a right to defend himself in the wake of “a vicious attack” from the Khans.
“I don’t regret anything,” he told WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. “I said nice things about the son, and I feel that very strongly. But of course I was hit very hard from the stage, and you know, it’s just one of those things.”
His son Eric Trump, when asked by CBS News if the campaign should take a different tack and apologize because they had offended a lot of people, said, “I think that this was something that was honestly blown in, hugely, out of proportion.”
The Trump campaign is touting the endorsement of Charles Woods, the father of Tyrone Woods, one of the four Americans killed in the 2012 Benghazi incident. On Wednesday, retired Gen. Michael Flynn was one of the warm-up speakers at Trump’s rally in Daytona Beach, Florida. And Trump said he met with six Gold Star families before his event in Jacksonville, which is home to multiple military facilities. “Incredible people,” he said.
Last week, Carey said the RNC had already hired 20 veterans for field staff positions and was holding get-out-the-vote training sessions for veterans, studying where they are concentrated, with plans to host more veterans-specific rallies. The GOP DataCenter, with merged information from the campaign and party organizations, is tracking veterans and modeling for potential voters, RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said.
“This may be the broadest and deepest field engagement of veterans by a national party,” Carey said. “This is a robust field program unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
Clinton, too, is making a concerted pitch for military votes. She’s had a full-time outreach director for veterans and military families, Jonathan Murray, since October. She has done seven veterans town hall-style events, in states such as Nevada, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Maryland. She picked Reno to release a 12-page policy the day before Veterans Day in November, and a page on her website is dedicated to arguing why voters shouldn’t believe Trump when he says “I love the vets.”
Clinton also used the Democratic National Convention to showcase members of the military community who support her, including military widow Cheryl Lankford, Medal of Honor recipient Florent Groberg, retired Gen. John Allen and, most notably, the Khans.
The commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which rarely weighs in on partisan races, suggested Trump might not be able to fix the animosity over his feud with the Khan family.
VFW Auxiliary member Anne Bryant, 69, of Eatonton, Georgia, said, “This last little thing hurt him a little bit, but it will work itself out.”
Bryant, whose father and brother were in the military, said she supports Trump and thinks “he would make sure he has a great cabinet.”