America should rethink the “American soldier” mythology during this year’s presidential election. The conventional wisdom, from politics to pop culture, that the military voter is white, male and Republican runs deep and false. A recent episode of HBO’s Veep showed a presidential election tipping Republican because of absentee ballots from a military town. Republican and Democratic candidates in this year’s election take photo ops with veterans that look like World War II propaganda posters.
The reality is that today’s military is younger and more diverse than at any point in American history—and it’s being driven by African-American women. Perhaps it was the recession, or post-9/11 patriotism, but as of 2011, black women are the fastest-growing population across all branches of the armed forces, and they vote. Campaign 2016 will turn on a frothy mix of gender, race and foreign policy issues, and it’s about time campaigns realized that black female military voters could tip the balance.
“My girlfriend is one of nine women in the Marines; I was one of two,” said “Jane,” a 47-year-old retired chief warrant officer with 21 years of service. She, like most active and retired veterans I interviewed, was nervous about openly expressing political views, given the military’s various restrictions (some names were changed to respect these concerns). However, the changes she saw in the armed forces during her career, politically and demographically, are reflective of what’s happening across the board. African-American women now make up 31 percent of all women in the armed forces, more than double the percentage of black people (13 percent) in the civilian population. By comparison, white women make up only 53 percent of all women in the armed forces, even though whites are about 77 percent of the general U.S. population.
In other words, black women in the military make up the largest group of minorities employed by any branch of the federal government. Imagine if the FBI were 31 percent black women, or the Department of Education. If the Environmental Protection Agency were 31 percent African-American women, I suspect that residents of Flint, Mich., wouldn’t have to rely on celebrity water donations to bathe their children safely.
Yet efforts by presidential campaigns of the two major parties to capture these voters have been almost nonexistent. Bernie Sanders is head of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and has done nothing to address black female veterans. Donald Trump can’t go five minutes without talking about how much he “loves” veterans, but he’s said nothing about the fact that 20 percent (pdf) of all female military veterans are black. Or that, according to a 2013 report by the Congressional Black Caucus, 45 percent of homeless veteran women (pdf) are African American.
Symbolically and numerically, campaigns are leaving votes on the ground by not addressing the needs of black female active duty military and veterans. Consider that active duty military and veterans vote at higher rates (pdf) than the civilian population, and African-American women already had the highest voter turnout in the last two presidential elections. This fact becomes all the more salient when you consider that swing states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia have the highest concentration of active and retired military voters. Beyond the numbers, imagine the positive symbolism and press coverage of a Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton or even Donald Trump doing a panel with a group of black female veterans discussing pressing issues for 2016.
Yet when I spoke to media surrogates and campaign advisers for Republicans and Democrats, they had no specific policies or strategies for speaking to black female veterans. When I spoke with one GOP representative and mentioned the number of black women in the armed forces, the response was, “Are you serious? I didn’t know that!” Two of the highest-profile black Republican women in the last decade or so have both been veterans. Former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll is a retired Navy colonel, and current Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton is a retired Air Force captain. Both would make excellent surrogates or even potential vice presidential picks this year, but so far, campaigns have been asleep at the wheel.
The Obama administration set a new standard for campaigning for black military women’s votes with policy and symbolism that the 2016 candidates should emulate. Right before the 2012 presidential election, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden began the Joining Forces initiative, which addresses the needs of military families, focusing on health care and child care. At 47 percent, active duty black military women are more likely to have children (pdf) than any white (30 percent) or Hispanic (37 percent) servicewomen, so linking health care to military needs was a brilliant campaign move for Obama.
“As a military person, I was more so Republican,” said Jane. “Once I retired , I became an independent and started seeing things in a different light.” Jane, who supported Obama in ’08 and ’12, noted that access to affordable health care is a huge issue in post-military life. The Obama administration’s campaign also tapped into the black military women’s vote through a policy that addresses one of the most symbolically powerful elements of black life: hair.
“I gotta give credit where credit is due,” said Stacy Washington, an Air Force veteran and host of Stacy on the Right, a conservative radio program out of St. Louis. President Obama upgraded military hair regulations in 2014, eliminating some of the previous hair standards that were racially biased and onerous for black women on active duty.
Every active and retired woman I spoke with mentioned the change in hair policy as a huge symbolic and practical change for which she credited the Obama administration. “We needed someone upstairs to understand that having your hair natural or in braids doesn’t keep you from being military-ready,” Washington, a registered Republican, said.
Polls show that active duty military people are more independent than American voters in general, but with no one in the current candidate crop really addressing black women’s needs, where will many black women place their votes?
Dawn, a 35-year-old Army officer with 16 years and three deployments, shared that she threw a going-away party when she was deployed in 2004. Like most young soldiers being deployed to a war zone, she had a mixture of fear, anxiety and a real sense of duty. That still didn’t trump her politics.
“I told everybody, if you voted for Bush, you aren’t invited!” she joked.
When she was asked about this year’s campaign, that same independent streak came through.
“You know those ‘Straight Outta’ T-shirts, after the movie last year? I feel like wearing a ‘Straight Outta Options’ T-shirt. … It’s Hillary or Trump,” said Dawn, who is up for another deployment to Iraq in 2017. “I’ll take the lesser of two evils [Hillary]: One is breast-fed in the White House, and the other is going to ignore all these racist people.”
Tanya, 38, a noncommissioned officer in the Army for 13 years, considers herself an independent but can’t see any of the current candidates as a viable option.
“Bernie Sanders, who wants to give away my paycheck? You’re asking someone who every day wishes we could extend the current president until someone else can put their hat in the ring,” she said.
Current polling indicates that the presidential election will be close, and the candidate who can target and turn out every single niche voter, especially in swing states, is most likely to win. Black women in the military are that niche voter … if the two parties are willing to talk to them. We’ve all seen decades of white male veterans standing at attention across campaign stages; perhaps a row of strong, black patriotic women who have served their nation could be the means of tipping the symbolic and political balance that Trump, Clinton or Sanders really needs.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.