South Carolina’s military community is a major force for the state’s economy and way of life. It is home to eight military installations employing more than 100,000 personnel and stimulates the economy with $19.3 billion annually, according to a report from the University of South Carolina.
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Military issues will play a key role for voters in the Palmetto state leading up to the first-in-the-South Republican primary on Saturday. When asked which issue mattered most to them in the presidential race, 41% of South Carolina voters said defeating ISIS and terrorism was their top concern, according to the Emerson College Polling Society.
Veterans in South Carolina make up 11% of the voting-age population, which totals more than 391,000 people, according to Census data.
“The military vote is important in South Carolina but what difference it will make in the primary is very difficult to say. All the Republican candidates are really trying to outdo themselves in terms of making the case that they would be the strongest in building up the defense budget and fighting against ISIS,” said Robert Oldendick, political science professor at the University of South Carolina.
“I think that Donald Trump gets some support in terms of his overall campaign and how strong he would be.”
In fact in a recent Fox News poll, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump ranks first place among veteran Republican primary voters with 37%. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is in second place with 22% and Florida Senator Marco Rubio rounds out the top three with 15%.
Oldendick says Trump’s tough talk such as vowing to “cut the heads off ISIS members” and ability to show leadership has been working to his advantage. In a CNN/ORC poll, the real estate mogul has 44% support from voters who believe he is best to handle the war on terror against ISIS.
On Wednesday during a Trump rally in South Carolina, Thomas Andrews, a veteran that served two tours in Iraq was called up on stage after breaking up a fight with a protester. Standing next to Mr. Trump he told the crowd, “This is the only man that’s going to really bring America back - he understands what it means for me and my people out here, who have been to war,” said Andrews.
It’s not the first time the billionaire businessman is making an appeal to veterans. In January, he held a veterans fundraiser in Iowa instead of attending the Fox News Republican primary debate. Trump announced his event raised $6 million for veterans.
“That make America strong again militarily and economically message is resonating even though there is no political track record to go on obviously. Trump has said look, I am extremely successful, I know what I’m doing, I can take what I know about business and apply it in politics and people at this point are willing to give it chance,” said Oldendick.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has been rising in recent South Carolina polls, is also working hard for the military vote. With a day left before the South Carolina primary, Rubio hit the campaign trail with U.S. Army veteran Sean Parnell, who served in Afghanistan and authored the book, “Outlaw Platoon.”
“In Afghanistan we faced annihilation pretty much every day and because we were unified we were able to make it through. I think Marco Rubio has that unifying voice, that message of hope that the country needs right now,“ said Parnell.
He says Rubio has proved his commitment to the military with the Department of Veteran Affairs Accountability Act of 2014, a bill he wrote and got passed with bi-partisan support.
“This act helps veterans by giving the VA secretary the authority to fire employees who are not performing their jobs, therefore creating the most effective team to treat and respond to veterans needs with accountability. This was during the time of the Veteran Affairs scandal in Phoenix which exposed veterans dying while they waited for treatment. Senator Rubio’s actions did a lot of good for veterans,“ said Parnell.
Rubio and Parnell split the day campaigning together in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina on Friday. He says veterans in the Palmetto state have expressed their excitement about Rubio’s message in strengthening the military.
“When he talks about the military, he is saying we have a moral obligation to win the war we get involved in. Otherwise you have an entire generation of veterans wondering what it was all for,” said Parnell. “Anybody that has any interest in strengthening our military and putting veterans’ healthcare benefits before bureaucracy should be supporting Marco Rubio,” he added.
Oldendick says Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has also been promoting his endorsements from high-ranking former military personnel in addition to tag teaming the campaign trail with his brother, former President George W. Bush.
“Jeb Bush has been running ads down here for a couple weeks now with several generals and military officers, saying he is ready on day one to be president. Obviously all the candidates recognize it is important and have been trying to do different things to get that support,“ said Oldendick.
According to a 2012 Fox News South Carolina GOP Primary Exit Poll, 21% of voters served in the U.S. military. South Carolina Republican primary voters head to the polls on Saturday, February 20.