Veteran voters in 2020

3 min readOct 28, 2020

Democrats, take note: Vets are not a unified bloc.

Research by Hawkfish Research, and Alexander Starr. Writing by Jim Flood.

Photo by Israel Palacio on Unsplash

Donald Trump’s deficits in national and swing-state polls have grown as he’s lost support among key demographic groups, most notably senior citizens and suburban women. Another group with the power to move the needle on November 3 is America’s veterans. In 2016, 60% of veterans who voted chose Trump, according to exit polls. Based on our recent research, the president can’t count on that level of support this time.

Last month, we collaborated with Avalanche Insights to understand where veterans stand in the upcoming election. While Trump still enjoyed the support of a plurality of veterans, those identifying as “definitely Trump” or “lean Trump” totaled 50%, while “definitely Biden” and “lean Biden” totaled 42% — a better showing than Clinton’s 34% share of the veteran vote in 2016. Most veterans of color, including 75% of Black vets and 57% of Latino vets, support Biden.

Especially noteworthy is the fact that veteran support for Biden varied by their date of service and their age. A majority of vets who have served since 1975 — and 58% of those who served in 2001 or since — affirmed that they are planning to vote for Biden or are leaning in that direction.

While an impressive 90% of the veterans we spoke with said they plan to vote, 7% were still undecided on which candidate they would support.

Regardless of their presidential pick, the most important issue for veterans in their selection of candidates was economic well-being. Among vets who have served since 1975, “Covid Response” was the second most important factor in their presidential choice. Given the devastating impact of COVID on the U.S. economy, and their endorsement of Biden’s capabilities in this area, tying a competent plan for COVID response and recovery to a job creation plan may well be a winning approach for the Democrats.

Not surprisingly, the issue of veterans’ benefits and services is a high priority issue for vets of all ages, but especially with the youngest cohort. A message that reinforces Democrats’ commitment to VA healthcare, the post-9/11 GI Bill, and other benefits would likely strengthen support for the Biden-Harris ticket. Democrats must focus on leading the U.S. past the pandemic and the economic downturn it has caused, and rebuilding and creating good jobs for the future. Younger vets in particular want to know they will not only receive the benefits they’ve earned, but see improved and expanded benefits and the economic opportunities they deserve.

Of course, it’s not just the message; the messenger matters too. Questions and commentary from other veterans can and even should make a difference. In our message test, concerns like those raised by veterans like former U.S Navy Seal Dr. Dan Barkhuff, featured in a Lincoln Project ad, made a strong case for a change in leadership among veterans who served since 2000. Navy veteran (and Hawkfish employee) Alexander Starr observed that since the majority of veterans were enlisted, their peers can more effectively garner support for a candidate’s positions. Democrats should consider featuring voices not only from current senior military leadership, but those of veteran enlisted men and women.

Hawkfish partnered with Unite The Country (which recently ran an ad with Cindy McCain’s closing message to vets) to put some of these findings in place, including a program that has reached 3.6 million veterans to date.

Sources: HF internal, Unite the Country, Avalanche Insights.

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