Say Hello to NASCAR Dads

Every election year, some pollster discovers a new constituency that supposedly is the key to victory: "The (blanks) are swing voters. Their votes are up for grabs this year. Whoever wins the (blanks) will win the election." Sound familiar? "Soccer moms," say hello to "NASCAR dads."

Back in 1994, "angry white men" ruled the electorate. They were mad at President Clinton, and they brought Newt Gingrich to power as speaker of the House just to torment the president. In 1996, Clinton pollster Mark Penn discovered the counter to angry white men: "soccer moms." They were upscale suburban working mothers turned off by the meanness of the Republican-controlled Congress. Soccer moms wanted leaders who were nice to women. Clinton was nice to women—maybe too nice.

In 1998, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake identified the downscale counterpart to soccer moms: "waitress moms." These working moms were too busy trying to make ends meet to chauffeur their kids to soccer games. So, let Republicans talk about impeachment. Democrats would talk about economic security. Waitress moms ruled!

At least they did until 2000, when Penn's "wired workers"—well-educated, technology-savvy, and libertarian—were all the rage. Al Gore and George W. Bush both targeted those New Economy voters as the key to the future—or, at least, to victory.

Forlorn liberals could console themselves by reading Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers's 2000 book, America's Forgotten Majority. And who was that "forgotten majority"? The answer was in the book's subtitle: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. Think the "white working class" sounds a lot like the "Reagan Democrats"? Exactly. Teixeira and Rogers urged Democrats to re-embrace economic populism in order to woo back the Democrats who had defected to the GOP.

Gore tried. "Let's make sure that our prosperity enriches not just the few, but all working families," he exhorted fellow Democrats in accepting his party's presidential nomination. But, of course, Gore failed to capture the White House.

So, Democratic pollsters discovered a new neglected constituency that was slipping away from their party: men. But men are not exactly a sexy new target group. So Penn came up with "office park dads," the husbands of soccer moms. They're upscale men with college degrees and business careers. Attacking corporate America isn't likely to go over well with that constituency.

Now the liberals, led by Lake, are countering with "NASCAR dads," the husbands of waitress moms. They're the downscale counterpart to office park dads. They're guys with less college, more military experience. Their defining characteristic? NASCAR dads are fans of stock car racing, the fastest-growing sport in America. "While the waitress moms are watching Oprah, the NASCAR dads are watching the car races on television," Lake says.

Why does every election cycle seem to reveal a new key constituency? Because the electorate is split so evenly between Democrats and Republicans. If one party targets a group that they say gives them an advantage, the other side has to counter with a different group—just as when soccer moms told the angry white men to shut up.

Now NASCAR dads are running over all those wired workers who got short-circuited by the dot-com bust. Focusing on NASCAR dads is supposed to help Democrats reclaim the votes of white men, as Mark Warner did last year in winning the governorship of Virginia. According to Lake, "One of the initial steps he took in his successful comeback campaign was sponsoring a NASCAR racing car." And Gov. Robert Wise of West Virginia defeated a Republican incumbent, Lake points out, after promising "as part of his economic development package to bring the first NASCAR racetrack to West Virginia."

When elections are close, every voter determines the outcome, and every group can be called a swing group. Jews? As a group, they haven't voted Republican in a presidential race since the New Deal. But political observers are now watching the Jewish vote to see whether President Bush's defiant support of Israel has an electoral payoff. African-Americans? They are the Democratic base, but if Republicans can just double their black support to 20 percent, that could be decisive in key states.

Hispanics? Pollster Sergio Bendixen cites surveys showing Bush making big inroads with Hispanic voters. Among Hispanics, Gore led Bush by 27 points in 2000. But a rematch would now be a near-tie, polls show. Of course, polls show Bush leading Gore by a big margin among all voters, meaning that Hispanics are simply part of a national trend.

Probably only one group could never be called swing voters: Christian conservatives. They're solidly Republican.

Democrats know that, as values-related issues have come to define party differences, upscale voters have trended Democratic while downscale voters have trended Republican. If you think Democrats should try to lock in the upscale vote, you talk about soccer moms and office park dads: economic conservatives, social moderates. If you think Democrats should try to reclaim blue-collar voters, you target waitress moms and NASCAR dads: economic populists, social conservatives.

Republicans have less trouble with swing voters. After all, look what happened to Reagan Democrats and angry white men. They're now called "Republicans."