President Donald Trump has been on the defensive since Thursday over an article in The Atlantic magazine that alleged, among other things, that he used derogatory language about fallen US soldiers.
We obviously don’t know what effect, if any, these stories will have on the 2020 campaign and Trump’s chances of winning a second term.
What we do know is Trump relies on active military members and veterans as a base of support, and any degradation of that backing is bad for him. Further, Trump wants to put former Vice President Joe Biden on the defensive, and this story does the opposite of that.
Trump’s campaign flourished in 2016 even after saying then-Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war, was “not a war hero.” He won a larger share of the primary vote from active and former military members than he did from other Republican voters, according to an academically sponsored national survey known as the Cooperative Congressional Election Study that asks over 40,000 verified voters nationwide their opinions on a host of political issues.
Further, Trump can thank veterans for his 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. According to the CCES study of verified 2016 voters, he won veterans and active military members by a 27-point margin over the Democratic nominee.
This was a huge deal for Trump because active military and veterans make up about 12% of voters. To give you some perspective, that’s a slightly higher proportion of the electorate than Hispanic voters (some of whom are or were part of the armed forces) and just a hair less than 18-29 year-olds (again some of whom did or are currently serving in the military).
A look at the swing states reveals just how pivotal this bloc is. Trump won the six close swing states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 4 points each. Without winning at least some of these states, Trump would have lost.
Trump lost among those who were not active or veteran voters in each of these six states. In other words, Trump would not be President right now if it were not for the military vote. In Florida, for example, Trump would have been defeated by a little less than 5 points without military voters. He actually won the state by 1 point.
Perhaps what’s most interesting is that Trump seems to have done significantly better than Mitt Romney did in 2012 among active military members and veterans. Romney won this group by 17 points in 2012, according to the CCES. Being a current or former member of the military made someone significantly more likely to vote for Trump, even when you account for factors such as age, education, race, sex and a person’s 2012 vote.
Indeed, Trump receiving Romney levels of support in the military vote could have been enough to have thrown the election to Clinton. While it’s difficult to tease out relatively small effects on the state level, Trump would have done a little bit more than a point worse nationally with Romney level support from current or former military members. Such a swing in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin may very well have given Clinton the win in each of these states.
Still, it won’t be easy for Biden to pry military support from Trump, even though Biden’s son, Beau, served in Iraq. Trump maintained significantly higher approval ratings among current and past military members than he did among voters overall in the 2018 CCES and exit polls.
It’s completely possible that the current controversies will not move the military vote at all. The 2020 election has been the most stable on record in terms of voters changing their minds over the course of the campaign. And as I noted at the top, Trump’s campaign did well in 2016, despite his unkind comments about McCain’s war hero status.
But even if the polls don’t move, Trump has wasted precious time on a storyline that isn’t favorable to him. Trump is down in the polls nationally and in the swing states. Voters don’t like Trump and never have since he first started running for president. His best chance of winning is probably for there to be negative attention placed on Biden.
Meanwhile, the campaign clock is ticking. And while Trump’s been confronting this story, the number of days until Election Day has slipped to less than 60. He has no ability to gain back that lost time, and that, in itself, is costly to Trump.