The conventional wisdom is that veterans lean heavily to Republican candidates. The conventional wisdom was wrong in 2008 and may have to be revised in the future.
Veterans' political leanings have changed over time. During and after WWII, when veterans were drawn from a broader cross section of society, their votes mirrored the wider body politic. They tended to vote Democratic. This began to change somewhat during the disillusion with the Korean stalemate and the Eisenhower administration but the real change came with the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Those drafted into unappreciated service and the professional officer corps who chaffed at political micromanagement of the war -- from unwise bombing halts to presidential selection of specific targets and even attack routes - turned against LBJ and Robert McNamara. Robert McNamara was the most despised Secretary of Defense until Donald Rumsfeld managed to acquire this dubious honor. After that a weak Carter presidency that included a pardon to those who fled to Canada and an unsympathetic Clinton presidency that mishandled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" drove military and veteran voters away. At the same time, Ronald Reagan's increased defense budgets and obvious honoring of military service and George H. W. Bush's performance in the Gulf war gained the allegiance of veteran and military voters.
The net result of this is that George W. Bush won 65% of the veteran vote in 2004 against John Kerry. The Swift Boat smears helped Bush achieve this tainted margin and disguised for a time the signs of a change in the pattern. It is likely that the data, if they exist, would show that the high water mark for the Republicans was the Bush "Mission Accomplished"" moment. After that circumstances began to shift the scene. The lack of preparation for the Iraq occupation, the absence of adequate vehicle and body armor, the failure to acknowledge the insurgency, the abysmal conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the lack of resources to deal with returning veterans all eroded the confidence of veterans in the Bush Administration and especially Mr. Rumsfeld.
There were 125+ million voters in 2008 and according to a national Edison/Mitofsky exit poll approximately 15% of these identified themselves as veterans. This would calculate to a 75% veteran voter turn out that could be a bit on the high side. If the 2004 65/35 split held, McCain would have received about 12 million votes and Obama 6 million. But the poll puts the actual split at 55/45 so McCain received about 12 million votes and Obama 8 million. The data also show that younger veterans favored Obama. Veterans under 45 favored Obama by 51% and those between 45 and 59 went 53% for Obama. The slight majority of veterans (53%) who were 60 and older went for McCain by 61%. This new voting pattern netted Obama a swing of nearly 4 million votes, half his margin of popular vote victory!
This single poll may have a large margin of error but the trends, and the preferences of younger vets are persuasive and there are other indicators. Veterans put together a strong Veterans for Obama organization in Virginia that was assisted by the national veterans effort. Together they launched an intensive drive in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area. In military and retiree heavy Norfolk, Republicans usually win 60/40. This year, Obama won by 2 votes. Bush won Virginia Beach by 19% in 2004, McCain won by only 3% -- a 16 point swing. A Democrat won the 2nd Virginia Congressional District that includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach by 3.5%, a 7% swing over an already improved 2006 Democratic performance.
It appears that Senator McCain's veteran status was not enough to overcome the Bush Administrations miserable performance in Iraq and in supporting veterans' needs. And on a one-to-one basis, Senator McCain had an undistinguished record supporting veterans as evidenced by his opposition to the New GI Bill of Rights, whereas Senator Obama had been a strong voice for improved veterans care from his position on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Will this move of veterans' political allegiances toward Democrats continue? The data on younger veterans preferences would seem to indicate so. If the Obama Administration carries through on its promises to keep the nation's sacred trust with our veterans, there is a good chance that the trend will continue and perhaps accelerate with the likelihood that the next Republican presidential candidate will not have a McCain like military biography. The nomination of retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs relatively early in the Cabinet selection process bodes well for veterans and well for the Democratic Party.