Travis Johnson is just the type of voter the Democratic Party hopes to win back in its effort to gain control of Congress in the November election.
Baking in the sun at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 23-year-old Danville, Illinois, resident wears a black T-shirt sporting NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson’s face. The fan looks like the epitome of the young, white, socially conservative, working-class voters who have been key backers of Republicans in the last decade.
But with U.S. soldiers dying in Iraq, war raging in the Middle East and gasoline prices soaring, he is not sure how he will vote.
“For the most part, I’m a toss-up. I’m not dedicated to either party,” Johnson said earlier this month as he and 270,000 other fans waited for the start of the Allstate 400 race organized by NASCAR, the official body for stock-car racing.
While such indecision presents an opening for Democrats, Republicans remain the party of choice among the fans who have made NASCAR one of America’s most popular sports.
“I would dearly love for the Democrats to spend millions of dollars trying to persuade NASCAR fans to vote for the Democrats,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. “They tend to be disproportionately southern, disproportionately white and disproportionately male, which pretty well defines the core of the Republican Party.”
CRACKS IN THE BASE?
NASCAR fans, or more specifically “NASCAR dads,” were highly courted voters in 2004, a group targeted by conservative Republicans after their earlier successes with suburban “soccer moms” and blue-collar “Reagan Democrats.”
The term “NASCAR dads” is shorthand for blue-collar, mostly white, southern men who support the U.S. military, like to hunt and enjoy watching cars race around asphalt tracks at speeds of up to 200 mph.
While politicians focused on NASCAR’s core in 2004, some polls indicate cracks may be appearing in the overall fan base of an estimated 75 million people.
Polling by Zogby International in August found that while more than half of NASCAR fans voted for President George W.
Bush in 2004, 56 percent now say the country is on the wrong track.
Almost one-third of NASCAR fans now intend to vote for Democrats in congressional races this fall, similar to the number planning to vote Republican, according to the Zogby poll. According to political analysts, this has occurred despite no significant increase in Democratic campaigning aimed at this group.
Analysts say Republicans won NASCAR fans in 2004 by focusing on so-called family values — stances against abortion, gay marriage and Hollywood.
At the Indianapolis raceway this month, many fans made clear their allegiance on that basis remains strong.
“This is a demographic that is very family oriented and as far as I’m concerned that’s the Republican Party,” Paula Schmidt, an accountant from Indianapolis, said. “I don’t think (Bush) will ever lose his NASCAR fans. At least not this one.”
But Schmidt, a 41-year-old mother of four girls, added she thought some Democrats were taking a more moderate stand on social issues, opening the door to attracting NASCAR fans.
Democratic Party consultant Dave Saunders said a squeeze on workers’ paychecks and benefits gave the Democrats an opening.
“There’s nothing wrong with our message,” said Saunders, who helped shape former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s successful NASCAR-themed campaign strategy in 2001. “The Republicans don’t have any blue-collar message.”
Saunders said it was now “somewhat socially and culturally unacceptable” for rural voters to identify themselves as Democrats but blamed that on candidates who don’t visit rural areas. “These people haven’t been Republicans that long.”
Pollster John Zogby agreed: “The Democrats are going to have to learn to talk to NASCAR fans.”
Stock car racing began to develop in the 1930s in the southeastern United States, where runners of illegal liquor avoided federal agents and raced each other on the side.
NASCAR emerged as the governing body for races in 1947. By 2000, its races drew an average television viewing audience of 3.4 million households. This season opened with the Daytona 500 race drawing 12.5 million households, the highest ever.
However, as the sport has grown and opened tracks in more densely populated areas such as urban California and Illinois, some analysts say the fan base has diversified and watered down the idea of a “NASCAR voter” bloc. Ayres does not agree.
“Did country music fans change when country music moved beyond the South?” the Republican pollster said. “What you do is attract a group of people with similar values.”
If that is the case, Democrats still need to adjust.
“It’s not like you can just wrap yourself in that NASCAR banner and people are going to race to your ideology,” said Larry DeGaris, a sports marketing consultant.
Also, just as NASCAR fans don’t desert favorite drivers when they’re struggling, Republicans remain confident they won’t lose votes.
“This is very loyal fan base,” NASCAR driver Jeff Burton, 39, said before the race, “and when they get behind you, you have to do some really, really bad stuff to lose that.”
Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited