Swing voters the presidential debate forgot: veterans

Wednesday's presidential debate included some love for Big Bird, but none for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, whose plight was ignored. But vets could prove an important voting bloc.

David Goldman/AP
President Obama (r.) greets Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver Wednesday in Denver.

There were no mentions of America’s veterans during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, a point that frustrates former US troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It was seriously disappointing,” says Tom Tarantino, a former US Army captain and chief policy director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “This was the debate that was supposed to focus on domestic issues and care for the men and women who had come home from Iraq and Afghanistan – it just didn’t seem like a priority.”

This perplexes veterans advocacy groups. “We have the ability to swing these elections – that’s the biggest secret nobody seems to have keyed in on,” Mr. Tarantino says.

Among IAVA’s members, 90 percent are registered to vote, roughly 40 percent of whom do not register or identify with any one party. The remaining 60 percent who do are equally split between the Republican and Democratic Parties.

“We’re pretty politically independent, pretty politically savvy – and we’re looking for candidates to address the needs that we’re facing,”  he says.

And while veterans represent only 6 percent of voters overall, US military bases – and thus the former fighters themselves – are concentrated in a number of swing states.

This includes 150,000 veteran voters in Florida, another 150,000 in Virginia, and 60,000 in Ohio, according to IAVA figures.

Their particular concerns include lowering the veteran unemployment rate, protecting veterans’ education benefits, improving support for female veterans, and extending critical Veterans Administration services, says Tarantino.

“With one veteran committing suicide every 36 hours, a 10.9 percent unemployment rate, and veterans’ education under attack from predatory for-profit schools, candidates and policy makers have a moral obligation to care for those who have served our country,” according to the IAVA Voter Guide.

The passing references during the debate to the US armed forces – Mitt Romney said he believes the military “should be second to none,” and President Obama cited the dangers of giving the Pentagon upwards of $2 trillion in money it’s not requesting – fell short of the robust debate of veterans issues for which the IAVA and other advocacy organizations had hoped.

“A passing reference to military spending isn’t enough,” says Tarantino. “Saying ‘I will support the military,’ and ‘Thank you for your service’ – while that’s fine and we appreciate it, we have serious problems,” he adds. “And, so far, we haven’t been hearing a lot of specifics.”

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