War Stories

Who Cares How Colin Powell Is Voting?

Quite a few people, actually.

Colin Powell

So Colin Powell announced on Meet the Press that he’s voting for Barack Obama. Should anyone—will anyone—care? Will his endorsement have any effect on the election?

Actually, it might.

Whatever his image among political activists (his fellow Republicans find him too moderate, while many Democrats still resent the role he played in promoting the invasion of Iraq), Gen. Powell—former secretary of state, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a man who once contemplated running for president himself—enjoys remarkably high favor among the broader population.

In a Rasmussen poll taken earlier this month, Powell was viewed favorably by 80 percent of those surveyed—considerably higher than the positive ratings for Sen. Obama (56 percent) or his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (49 percent).

More remarkable, 12 percent of those polled said that Powell’s endorsement would probably have at least some effect on their vote. Within that group, just 5 percent said it would “very likely” have an effect. (Seven percent said the prospect was “somewhat likely.”) Still, given that so few voters remain undecided at this late date, 12 percent, or even 5 percent, is not a trivial share—and, depending on its geographic distribution, could even be decisive in certain states.

Whatever Powell’s endorsement is worth, it’s probably worth more than most others. In a poll last February, when the primaries were still going on, registered voters were given a list of 10 prominent figures and asked whether an endorsement from each would make them more or less likely to vote for the favored candidate. Powell was the only name on the list whose positive influence (28 percent) outweighed his negative influence (19 percent).

The fact that Powell hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, that he’s a longtime friend of McCain’s, and that his own friend and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is listed as an adviser to McCain’s campaign—all this makes his support for Obama a more striking move still.

His endorsement of Obama probably would have made a bigger splash had he announced it two months ago, before the financial crisis erupted and when national security was a more decisive issue. Still, he might yet have an effect on two groups.

The first group is the faction that used to be called “Reagan Democrats”—voters who are concerned about military strength. Powell is seen as a figure of stature among these people. His endorsement might allay their concerns that Obama lacks the gravitas to be president. (In this sense, Powell’s refusal on Meet the Press to retract his earlier support for the Iraq war—or to lash out at his old boss, President George W. Bush—probably strengthened the force of his endorsement.)

The second group is the military. By all accounts, McCain is way ahead of Obama among military personnel, active and retired. A Gallup poll of veterans taken in August showed McCain leading 56 to 34. The polling firm noted, however, that this margin was nearly identical to the 55-39 margin by which veterans voted for Bush over John Kerry in the 2004 election. In other words, the main factor here may be simply that veterans tend to be male (91 percent), above the age of 50 (more than half), and Republican (47 percent, as opposed to 39 percent Democratic)—demographics that favor McCain even among nonveterans.

A poll of 4,300 military personnel, taken this month by the Military Times newspapers (which include Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times, and Marine Corps Times), shows McCain leading Obama by an even wider margin, 67-24.

The survey certainly exaggerates his edge. It was a voluntary poll; those who wanted to take part sent in their responses. The Military Times editors themselves note that the respondents were older, whiter, and more senior in rank than the actual composition of the armed services. This makes a difference. In the poll, McCain led Obama 76-17 among whites, but Obama led McCain 79-12 among blacks.

Still, a more significant finding in this context is that 74 percent of those surveyed consider McCain’s military experience as an important factor in their vote—and 66 percent regard Obama’s lack of military experience as an important factor.

Here is where Gen. Powell’s endorsement may come into play. Many officers, especially senior officers, view Powell as more of a political figure than a combat veteran; he earned his stars in the White House and the Pentagon. Many enlisted men and women, however, especially those in the Army, see him as a fellow grunt, an infantryman who fought in the mud and the grime of Vietnam and stuck around afterward to make the Army his career. I have recently corresponded with a few of these soldiers, who have fought—some are still fighting—in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say that Powell is still a model to many of their buddies.

One noncommissioned officer in Iraq told me that many of the soldiers in his unit like McCain because of his experience as a prisoner of war, which they honor and respect. However, he added, Powell’s endorsement imparts some legitimacy to Obama; it might go some distance toward compensating for Obama’s lack of combat experience, nullifying McCain’s advantage, and thus at least leveling the field so that other factors (such as the economy) might come into play.

The NCO made another point: Today’s active-duty Army is more diverse than soldiers of decades past could ever have imagined. His unit in Iraq includes U.S. soldiers who were born in Mexico, Russia, Senegal, Ecuador, and Iran. In the barracks, they hurl racial stereotypes at one another as a joke. But, the NCO said, they are all disturbed when they hear Gov. Sarah Palin talk about small, predominantly white towns as the “real America.” And they were all moved when they heard Gen. Powell bemoan the tendency, especially among the Republicans’ right-wing “base,” to equate “Muslim” with “anti-American.” One of the NCO’s best friends, who was killed in a firefight and remains much missed by everyone in the unit, was an American soldier named Omar.

The soldier cautioned against exaggeration. He knows plenty of soldiers who wouldn’t dream of voting for Obama, either because they admire McCain too much or because they’re self-described “rednecks.” Still, many soldiers are sitting on the fence, and Gen. Powell’s endorsement could push them into Obama’s camp.