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Democrats hit skids with NASCAR dads

Monday, October 13, 2003

By Maeve Reston, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

LAKEVILLE, Conn. -- The smell of burnt rubber filled Lime Rock Park on a brilliant fall day this weekend as three dozen stock cars thundered around the track hitting speeds of 140 mph along the straightaways. On the grassy hills overlooking the track some 15,000 to 18,000 fans, mostly middle-aged white men with their sons in tow, spread out in canvas sport chairs with coolers at their sides, their minds on racing and most certainly not on politics.

A lot of Democratic political operatives have been thinking about them, though -- and advising their party's presidential candidates to spend more time working the crowds at races like this one, especially in the South, seeking the votes of "NASCAR dads." The phrase was coined by pollsters to describe middle-aged white men who lean Republican but might be potential swing voters.

This is not a strategy everyone agrees on. The Democratic candidate most identified with pursuing NASCAR dads became the campaign's first dropout last week. Florida Sen. Bob Graham had plastered his name on a racer in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, but the gimmick didn't help much, even though his name got plenty of camera time when his truck took a lap down victory lane at the Kansas Speedway in early July.

The question of whether Democrats should consider NASCAR dads an important voting bloc is a subject of lively debate among party activists, pollsters and political science professors. Some factions, including members of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that helped drive President Bill Clinton to power, are determined to at least chip away what has become a Republican advantage among white males. Some liberals think the problem is more than offset by Democratic advantages among women and that trying to win back NASCAR dads would do more harm than good to their presidential candidates.

This coming weekend, the DLC is hosting a conference in Atlanta dubbed "God, Guns and Guts: Seizing the Cultural Center," where Democrats will strategize about how to be more savvy in handling key issues that drive white conservative-leaning males toward the Republican Party, such as the expansion of government, gun control, affirmative action and abortion rights.

Graham, who was at zero percent in the polls when he dropped out, is not seen by DLC centrists as a true test of the NASCAR dad strategy because his campaign was rife with other problems. But some political science professors, such as Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, believe the whole concept of NASCAR dads as a swing group is a "silly" invention of pollsters and that Democratic candidates are going to have a tough time attracting their votes in any case.

"NASCAR dads have been pretty consistently Republican," Sabato said. "There's not the slightest indication that they're switching parties. Every now and then they vote for Democrats in a state race, and that's really the only evidence there is."

That may be, but a number of racing fans at Lime Rock Park this past weekend who voted for President Bush in 2000 suggested that a Democrat might win their support in 2004. Many said Bush is doing a decent job but that they were upset that Americans are still dying in Iraq, and they voiced a great deal of frustration that the administration wants Congress to commit another $87 billion to rebuilding Iraq when the money could be used for American schools, roads or other projects. At the same time, they did not fault Bush for the poor performance of the economy -- an issue the Democratic candidates are pushing.

Geoffrey E. Ainson of Branford, Conn., who voted for Bush in 2000 and was at the Busch North Series NASCAR race with his children in Lakeville on Saturday, said he would consider voting for "the right Democrat" in 2004 if they had a "better foreign policy" than the president.

"I'd like to see somebody that would try and keep our nose out of everybody else's business around the world," said Ainson, 48, an independent. "I'm so tired of trying to spread our wealth around the world. I think that we should worry about ourselves more than we worry about other nations. ... And I think a lot of people are fed up with the current administration."

Other racing fans, such as Charles L. Jones, a Republican firefighter from Long Island, N.Y., with two children, said while he believes Bush has done only an "adequate job," he was unlikely to give his support to a Democrat next year.

"I think [Bush] has been weak in a lot of areas and I'm not sure he had all his facts straight when it comes to the [Iraq war], but I'm just not for major changes which the Democrats always seem to be for," said Jones, shouting above the roar of the stock cars. "It's not that I'm favor of everything Republicans do.

A lot of their tax plans always seem to benefit rich people and don't seem to help the working class or middle class. But if the Democrats want to upset Bush in the next election, they really have to come across with a strong candidate and I don't think there has been a front-runner emerging."

Crucial gender gap

The gradual shift of white males toward the Republican Party has spelled trouble for the Democratic Party since the 1950s, when many white Southern males began to move away from the Democratic Party in response to the civil rights movement and the rise of women, minority and gay rights groups within the party. In the last 50 years, a pronounced gender gap has emerged between the two parties, with Democrats tending to do better with women and Republicans tending to do better with men. As Republican pollster David H. Winston describes it, that gap has become a crucial concern for both parties in recent years because the country is so evenly divided on partisan lines.

There's a bit of a race, Winston says, "Whoever can solve their gender problem first will have a huge strategic advantage," he said. "So whether it is Republicans with females or Democrats with males, they're both sort of actively working on it."

White males were a particular problem for 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, whom voters like Jones and Ainson described as "really weak." Winston points to 2000 exit polls showing that Bush was favored among white males 60 percent to 36 percent for Gore. Clinton is widely viewed as having been a bit more successful than Gore with that group, Winston said, because he had a more centrist message. There was roughly an 11-point spread between Clinton and 1996 Republican candidate Robert Dole among white males, although Reform candidate H. Ross Perot complicates the analysis of that match-up because he drew votes from both parties.

The problem was especially pronounced for Democrats in the 2002 mid-term congressional elections. A joint survey by polling groups from both parties -- the Republican-oriented Public Opinion Strategies and the Democratic survey group Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research Inc. -- found that Republicans were continuing to solidify their lead among white male voters from rural areas, and that those voters helped them clinch congressional and senatorial elections around the country.

That is why Democrats gathering in Atlanta this coming weekend will brainstorm how candidates can maintain traditional party stances on issues like affirmative action and abortion while using more inclusive language, as Clinton did, to attract some center-right males, said DLC Policy Director Ed Kilgore. Clinton used to say of affirmative action, "Mend it, don't end it," and would say abortions should be "safe, legal and rare," phrases that Kilgore says suggested a willingness to at least acknowledge the concerns of conservative-leaning white males.

"There's always a tendency among Democrats to change the subject from all of these issues like guns, values, religion and national security ... and instead focus everybody on issues where Democrats are thought to have a big advantage [such as Social Security or health care]," Kilgore said. "That's a mistake. When you are a party that has been unfairly typecast in a negative way by the opposition on these issues, silence seems to confirm those stereotypes. We need to meet these issues head on .... It's important for [white men] to know that Democrats understand their values."

Meanwhile, back at the races in Connecticut, two NASCAR buddies who work together at the local phone company as cable splicers cautioned Washington political types from making too many generalizations about NASCAR dads. Dennis Tanner, a liberal Republican, said he is almost certain he will vote for Bush. Joseph A. Albright said he would never consider it.

Albright said he thinks most NASCAR fans are Democrats, but then he reconsidered. "Who knows," he said. "I wouldn't think Republicans could have that much fun."

"Well, they all agree on one thing," Tanner said, holding up his drink. "Beer."

Maeve Reston can be reached .

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