The NASCAR dad could hold the key to this year’s election. That is, if he exists.

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As we all know, George W. Bush opened the Daytona 500 race on Sunday not, or not principally, because he “likes speed,” but because he buys the conventional wisdom that there’s a guy out there called the “NASCAR dad” — lots of them, actually — whose vote is up for grabs in November.

The NASCAR dad is supposedly a blue-collar, socially conservative white male who would normally vote Republican but who, having been hit hard by the economic downturn and largely unhelped by a GOP president, might give the Democrats a closer look this time. Pollster John Zogby summed it up for the Detroit News last year:

“Normally, these guys are a slam dunk constituency for Republicans. While they are inclined to be conservative and Republican, they are mad as hell and they could be in play next year. And in a close race anything that moves a couple hundred votes here and there could loom very large.”

And as
Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who coined the term “NASCAR dad” in the first place, says:
“Our message to them is: Democrats are not going to take away your guns, but Republicans are going to take away your jobs.”

Each election year brings with it a new group of voters analysts claim could make or break the winner. It was angry white men in 1994 and soccer moms in 2000. This year it’s NASCAR dads. But do they really exist — other than on the yellow pads of political consultants who are wont to come up with cute categories to justify their existence?

Whoever “NASCAR dads” really are, it seems increasingly clear that they’re not all NASCAR dads. Stereotyped as a sport watched by Southern white males, NASCAR in fact claims to be the fastest growing major sport among minorities. More than 60 percent of NASCAR fans live outside the southeast. NASCAR boasts about 75 million fans, the second-largest sports audience after the National Football League; 39 percent make at least $50,000 a year; 19 percent are from the West and 20 percent from the Northeast. More than 40 percent of NASCAR fans are women.

So, it seems many NASCAR fans don’t have a lot in common. But hell, say the political consultants, there are millions of them, so if only you could get them to vote as a bloc…. But as Jeff MacGregor wrote in the New York Times Magazine last month, numbers can be deceiving. He suggests that focusing on NASCAR fans, in particular, has little basis:

“In a National Review article not long ago, the writer, awestruck, broke the stats down like this: “Nascar’s Winston Cup, the biggest of the three ‘major league’ series in the stock car racing calendar, drew 6.7 million ticketed spectators last year, an average of 186,000 per event. By way of comparison, paid attendance for the N.F.L. in 2002 averaged 66,000 per event, for major league baseball 28,000, for N.B.A. basketball 17,000. TV viewership for a Nascar race runs around 15 million to 20 million. The same as for many Major League Baseball playoff games.”

Trouble is, there are an awful lot more Major League Baseball games and professional football games in this country than there are major league stock car races. Why not try gross numbers instead of averages? Total attendance figures for N.F.L. football last year? About 16 million people. For N.B.A. basketball, about 20 million. For Major League Baseball? Sixty-seven million, plus or minus a few blue collars, annually. Ten times Nascar’s fan turnout. Yet poor Baseball Dad sits home alone with no one to poll him.”

So, as a group of swing voters, are NASCAR dads really as important as they’re said to be? One South Carolina political scientist, Brad Gomez, says people shouldn’t be so literal about the term; its meant to personify a broader group of people than just fathers that like NASCAR. “Do you really think every soccer mom had a kid playing soccer? It’s a metaphor, people.”
(Well, then it’s a lousy metaphor, Brad.)

A columnist for the Charlotte Observer argues that when the media, or political consultants, latch on to a catch-phrase like NASCAR dads, they may be forgetting about a lot of other influential voting blocs:

“But there are some problems with lumping a group of potential voters under that kind of rhetorical blanket. First, the notion of a ‘NASCAR dad’ is a not-quite-accurate stereotype – especially at a time when NASCAR is spending millions to expand its reach into suburbia and beyond.
Second, angry white men – that’s what they were called in 1994, when they helped propel Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution – are one of several demographic groups that could be key this fall. What about the nation’s growing Hispanic population, the target of President Bush’s recent call to give legal status to millions of undocumented workers? What about African Americans, a key Democratic constituency that Republicans believe they can win with a renewed commitment to school vouchers and social conservatism?
And how about those poor, forgotten soccer moms?”

ABC’s George Stephanopoulos comments that, in reality, “NASCAR Dads” are a subset of all NASCAR fans, and may make up a tiny percentage of all voters:

“…Our pollster Gary Langer says that NASCAR dads, like the soccer moms of 1996, and the waitress moms of 2000, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. He ran the numbers on all married white fathers who live outside cities and make less than $50,000 a year. They were only two percent of all voters in the last election and shows Bush over Gore by 70 percent to 27 percent. You really want to call that a swing voter group, he asks?”

Regardless of the meaning of NASCAR dad, Bush’s appearance at the Daytona race did guarantee him face time with 180,000 people from the stands, and 35 million on TV.
And even though not all fans feel the same way, NASCAR chairman Brian France said at the track on Sunday: “This is George Bush country here.”

The Washington Post points out that when NBC interrupted race coverage on TV for a shot of Air Force One flying over the track and into the clouds, “he got a last shot of publicity that no opponent could buy.”

So don’t be surprised to see John Kerry, or (ritual disclaimer) whoever the Democratic nominee is, at a NASCAR event or two. Of course, unlike Bush, whose trip to the Daytona 500 was called “nonpolitical” and thus tabbed to the taxpayer, Kerry will have to pay his own way.


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