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Trump's Secret Sauce: The Veterans Vote

By Joseph Hammond

A Republican National Committee (RNC) strategist has revealed the strategy that produced record support for Donald Trump among veterans in the 2016 election.

U.S. military veterans voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a two-to-one margin, according to CNN exit polls - 61% to 31%. That is the largest margin for any presidential candidate since at least 1976 the earliest such data was available to the RNC. John McCain, a decorated war hero, won the veteran vote by a margin of 10 percent over Barack Obama in 2008. Mitt Romney won veteran voters by a margin of 20 percent over Obama four years later.

“The key to Trump’s appeal with veterans was that first and foremost this was a candidate who made veterans issues a center point of his campaign,” said Bob Carey, the Director of Military & Veteran Engagement with the RNC.

Trump created a 10-point plan to tackle veterans issues and pledged to create a 24-hour direct hotline to the White House for veterans to lodge complaints about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The RNC created full-time staff positions focused on veteran turnout as early as the fall of 2014. The RNC’s 2016 veterans campaign grew to include 50 full-time staff positions and 350 field operatives, and attracted 27,000 veteran volunteers.

The RNC also relied on veterans to knock on doors of veterans who were likely voters “Veterans are among the most trusted groups in the country. On average, veteran engagements with voters were twice as long as non-veteran initiated engagements. Voters contacted by a veteran are also twice as likely to answer their questions.”

Given that the veteran population is widely diffuse, the RNC found that phone-banking was a more efficient way to reach veteran voters. The RNC facilitated 1.35 million veterans-focused door knocks or calls in battleground states in the presidential election.

The RNC also worked to participate in both the state and national veteran’s events. These events allowed the RNC to increase its database of prospective voters.

“Using data analytics and modeling we were able to identify 1.1 million new veteran voters," said Carey. "We assigned each veteran a score of how likely they were to vote Republican.”

Carey said that 78 percent of veterans voted in the 2016 election, compared to 57.9 percent of eligible voters overall.

Turmoil in the Veterans Health Administration may have contributed to the higher veteran turnout. In 2014, both independent and internal investigations revealed that the Veterans Health administration often failed to meet a 14-day target for veterans to receive treatment. The scandal led to the eventual resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in 2014. A Veterans Health Administration internal audit released on June 9, 2014 revealed another 120,000 cases where veterans never got care or documents were altered to make it appear as if the appointments came within the 14-day window.

That year President Obama signed legislation pledging $15 billion dollars to reform veteran healthcare. The reforms also allowed veterans to seek health care services from the private sector in certain circumstances. Despite the reform package, the number of patients having to wait thirty days for an appointment as well as average wait times for an appointment have increased according to data released by the Veterans Health Administration in December.

“I don’t think the veteran vote for Trump was a backlash against President Obama’s policies with the VA or the change in policies regarding LGBT military personnel and veterans,” said Matt Thorn, the Executive Director of OutServe-SLDN an NGO which is focused on supporting LGBT members of the armed services and veterans. "I do think the administration will find it a tall order to fulfill their own populist claims regarding VA reform.”