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Political Overdrive

Edwin Jackson was shopping at Bass Pro Shop Outdoor World in Arundel Mills, dressed in his sporty No. 3 Dale Earnhardt jacket, when he suddenly looked perplexed.

"NASCAR Dads?" he said, squinting with bewilderment.

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Yes, Edwin Jackson, what do you think about being a NASCAR Dad, 2004's early candidate for Spoiler-of-the-Year honors?

Edwin drew a blank.

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You know, like Soccer Moms, the suburban swing group politicians pitched in '96. Only this time, Edwin, they're after guys like you.

"Oh, yeah, Soccer Moms," he said, motioning across the aisle where a blonde was selectively picking over packs of beef jerky for Christmas stocking stuffers. "That's my wife, Kim."

"Hi," said his wife. "I'm a Soccer Mom. I drive the kids everywhere."

OK, maybe it still is a little early to explain the latest demographic trends in presidential politics.

But sometime in the next few months, 36-year-old Edwin Jackson will likely awaken to the fact that he and his fellow NASCAR supporters are the single most sought-after voters in the 2004 presidential campaigns.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who developed the NASCAR Dads notion from an analysis of swing voters two years ago, has said Democrats need to sway at least half of these racing fans to win back the White House this year.

Republican pollster Glen Bolger recently boasted to the Chicago Sun-Times that his party already has the cohort locked up, and anyone who thinks they will be swing voters is "inhaling exhaust fumes."

The race for a checkered flag may be tough going, but competition for voters in 2004 is already insane.

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Who are the NASCAR Dads?

National surveys show that 19 percent of voters now identify themselves as NASCAR fans; 42 percent earn between $40,000 and $100,000 a year; 38 percent of them live in the South, but 62 percent hail from the Northeast, Midwest and West. Their enthusiasm has made car racing the nation's No. 2 spectator sport, behind only pro football.

They are conservative, patriotic and, according to the sports advertising research firm Performance Research, extremely loyal to the sport - three times more likely than non-fans to buy products from companies that sponsor the sport.

Contenders for the White House have taken note. Successfully align yourself with NASCAR, pollsters suggest, and voters will follow.

It's probably no coincidence that President George W. Bush welcomed a delegation of NASCAR drivers to the White House in early December, and that Democratic candidate Howard Dean said in November that he wants "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." (Though the remark brought more attention for its muddled racial overtones than Dean intended, it was apparently made in an effort to buddy-up to the blue-collar crowd).

Still, the concept seemed a little fuzzy to Edwin and Kim Jackson from Warrenton, Va.

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"I'm a Republican, actually," he declared.

Well, only sometimes. With a little prodding Edwin acknowledged he voted for Bill Clinton in '96 after growing disenchanted with the man he calls "the first George Bush," whom he voted for in '92 and whose economic policies Edwin blames for hurting his trucking business ("I about starved under that man," he said).

Which makes Edwin Jackson specifically the kind of voter the candidates will vie for - working-class family men whose allegiance to any particular party is not so strong that it can't be shaken by a good old-fashioned pragmatic appeal.

Did you vote for Bush in 2000? Democrats are asking.

So how are you faring economically today? Do you have any relatives in the military who are still in Iraq? What does NAFTA mean to you?

There is at least some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the NASCAR Dad strategy may be effective. After all, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner became the first Democrat in a generation to carry rural Virginia after he sponsored a NASCAR race at the Martinsville track in 2001.

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Still, some NASCAR fans are not convinced that the pundits have it right.

"It's my belief NASCAR fans are not going out there to the track looking for a politician who has a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other hand saying, 'Follow me!'" said Matthew Adams, author of Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul. "They're going out to enjoy their chosen sport fully expecting that it won't be encumbered with political messages."

Certainly, NASCAR enthusiasts do share certain traits, Adams said - patriotism being one "very important and vital element to who they are." But, he insisted, "that does not necessarily translate into political passion." In fact, he said, he doubts that the fans share enough common interest in politics to form a constituency for anyone at all.

"It could end up being a situation [in 2004] where you have the political machines spending a lot of time and money to woo a constituency that just doesn't exist," he said.

At Arundel Mills' Pro Bass shop - a business closely affiliated with NASCAR through its sponsorship of the late racecar driver Dale Earnhardt, co-sponsorship of the MBNA Atlanta 500 and various NASCAR merchandise promotions - such skeptics were easy to find during the holidays.

"I guess NASCAR just gives politicians a way to relate to the crowd and touch base with a lot of incomes and lifestyles," said Terry Rich, a resident of Gambrills who grew up watching televised races in Bowling Green, Ky. "But the Republicans have recognized the redneck vote for a lot longer than the Democrats - and I use that term 'redneck' affectionately because I've been referred to as that for a long time. At this point, there's no way I'd vote for a Democrat."

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Diane and Fred Atwell, both racing fans from Mount Airy, were out shopping with some of their NASCAR friends, when the "Dads" question came up. Mention of President George W. Bush brought a knowing nod - "He seems like he'd be a NASCAR guy," Diane said - but mention of Democratic presidential hopefuls (Howard Dean, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Wesley Clark and Richard Gephardt, to name a few) only drew blank stares.

NASCAR fans aren't talking about next year's presidential race, Diane said.

On the other hand, she said, if you want to hear what they think about this year's change in sponsorship from Winston to Nextel because of anti-tobacco sentiment in NASCAR's expanding markets, you'll get an earful.

"The next thing you know they'll be trying to pull Budweiser out of it!" Diane said.


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