The 10 cities with the highest percentage of veterans: how did they vote?

Politics, Presidential Elections, US Elections, US Politics

On the occasion of Veterans Day, Facing South last week had a post up about veterans in the South and veteran care. Part of the post was a list of the “10 Cities with Highest Percentage of Veterans”. Nine turn out to be in the South. 

It made me curious: Southern cities with a high percentage of veterans, those can’t have been the most promising locales for the Obama surge, can they? The lone non-Southern city was the conservative redoubt of Colorado Springs, after all.

Looking up the results for the counties in question yielded an unexpected mish-mash of votes, however.

First, here is the list of the top 10 cities and the counties they are in – note that in Virginia, the cities are their own counties. (For a methodological note, see footnote 1).)

Table 1: Top 10 cities with highest percentage of veterans in 2000

Top 10 cities with highest percentage of veterans in 2000

Now for the election results from 2004 and this year in those top 10 cities that had the highest share of veterans in 2000 (respectively the counties they are in). As said, it’s a very mixed picture:

Table 2: Top 10 cities with highest percentage of veterans in 2000 (resp. the county they are in): how did they vote in 2004 and 2008?

Top 10 cities with highest percentage of veterans in 2000 (resp. the county they are in): how did they vote in 2004 and 2008?

In 2004, George Bush won five of these cities/counties, and John Kerry won five as well. The margins varied from a 35% Bush lead to a 25% Kerry lead.

When comparing the results in these counties with the results of the states they are in, it looks like they were actually relatively Kerry-friendly grounds. In six of the ten, Kerry did better in the county than he did in the state it was in, and in almost all of those by 10% or more. Conversely, there were just two counties where GWB won by a margin that was higher by double digits than the one he led by in the state overall.

In 2008, seven out of the ten cities/counties in this Veteran Top 10 went for Obama, by anything between 1% and 43%. In just two of them did McCain win comfortably; El Paso county in Colorado, where Colorado Springs is, being one of the two. Also in seven out of ten cases, the county was more Obama-friendly than the state it was in, and again usually by double digits.

Top 10 cities with highest percentage of veterans in 2000, resp. the counties they are in: what was the swing to Obama?

Top 10 cities with highest percentage of veterans in 2000, resp. the counties they are in: how did the election results change from 2004 to 2008?

This table makes the implied comparison explicit: by how much did the margin between the Democrat and the Republican change? In every one of these counties, Obama did better than Kerry — or McCain worse than Bush, however you want to put it. Whether Obama’s lead was larger than Kerry’s, or his deficit smaller than Kerry’s, or the county actually gave Obama the lead when Kerry had lost; the swing was universal.

This of course is not in itself surprising, even taking McCain’s expected appeal to military veterans into account, since the same holds true for 78% of counties nationwide. But that’s where the third column comes in: in every one of these counties, the swing was as large or larger than in the state it was in. E.g. in Montgomery County, Tennessee, there was a 9% swing toward Obama, even as the state overall swung ever so slightly to McCain. In North Carolina there was an overall 12% swing to Obama – but there was a 22% swing in veteran-heavy Cumberland County.

What does this mean? Well, you can’t extrapolate the voting behavior of veterans from the voting patterns in the towns or counties they live in. That’s a tricky kind of conflation: just think of all those poor states that strongly lean Republican, but in which the lower-income groups in turn tend to be a lot more Democratic again. Top 10 cities or not, veterans still clearly constitute a minority in these places.

To isolate the veteran vote, the exit polls remain your best bet. Nationally, 54% of veterans voted for McCain, making for a 10-point McCain lead when Obama led by the same numbers among non-vets. Bush had led by 16 points in 2004, so the swing among veterans was 6 points, which was a little smaller than the 9 point swing nationally – if still enough to make for a fairly even spread of votes between the two candidates this time.

There’s something of a paradox, in short. Veterans, who overall tend to lean somewhat (if not overwhelmingly) Republican, apparently live in the highest concentrations in cities and counties which do not. And which swung especially strongly to Obama this year. Is it a question of those places tending to be low-income counties? What other correlations could there be? 

One thing this does mean is that there’s no reason to assume that centres of veteran population are conservative bulwarks. Colorado Springs is actually the exception. So next time you hear a pundit opine on election eve that Obama will have a hard time making progress in, say, Virginia Beach because it’s a military bastion, don’t panic. (Obama lost Virginia Beach by just 1%, enjoying an 18-point swing that was above-average even for Virginia.)



1) On a methodological note, one downside is that the Top 10 Cities list is based on the Census data from 2000 – so for the corresponding numbers by county, where differing, I’ve also used the 2000 data in the US Census Bureau Fact Sheets. Aside from other demographic changes since then, that means that veterans of the current Iraq war are not included.

The US Census Bureau has conducted a more regular American Community Survey, which also includes data on veteran populations, but they were only conducted in selected counties; and although the Bureau’s website provides a ranking of states by percentage of veterans for 2006, there’s no corresponding ranking of top counties, neither nationally nor by state. (There’s a map, though.)



  1. Bill  •  Apr 3, 2011 @10:45 am

    This also goes to show how difficult it can be to predict what will resonate with any class or group of voters.

  2. Michael Gronkowski  •  May 1, 2012 @1:10 pm

    The cities everyone is looking at is where alot of the big bases are. Most military veterens tend to stay close to what they knew for most of their lives. Its sorta like a security blanket. Most tend to be republican because republicans have a tendancy to favor the military and help care for veterans and military needs. I would not think that most of these cities are more pro democrat or republican, just a very military orientated city.