Sporting politics: Bush, Kerry in play

By Evan Weiner | Special to the Sentinel

If virtually all of the presidential-tracking polls are correct, Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry are not only even in Florida but nationally as well. That means both campaigns are being forced to go after voters they normally would not pursue, and one of those groups is sports fans. In fact, the Bush campaign is heavily courting 18- to 34-year-old males by spending a lot of advertising dollars on ESPN in an effort to attract them.

ESPN, despite its rather low ratings, is the best known of the sports networks and has a loyal following. ESPN and the sports industry have the demographics that politicians like: young, white males who are not necessarily politically attuned but are impressionable.

And going after those potential voters is part of a strategy employed by both sides. Massachusetts Sen. Kerry has made references to the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, who play their games in suburban Boston, in some of his campaign speeches. Kerry has also been seen playing hockey and skiing. The winter sports may not play well in the “red” states, but Kerry does shore up his “blue” states’ base. Bush hosted a NASCAR event in the White House back in December, which is popular in the “red” states, and he threw out the first pitch on Opening Day in St. Louis, in a state that he barely won back in 2000.

There is a method to the madness though. “We are trying to appeal to lots of folks,” said Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Bush-Cheney 2004. “Our decisions about where to advertise are based on strategies. Based on looking at who watches those shows and who watches those networks and making the smart decision accordingly.”

The Bush campaign is spending money on 18- to 34-year-old sports fans because it feels it can capture that demographic. But Mehlman does concede that his campaign is going after “white men largely, not exclusively, and sometimes their wives.”

Although people like Mehlman say they want to appeal to all, they have targeted a very specific audience.

So it’s no coincidence that Bush strategists started playing up the “NASCAR dads” theme after NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth and a large group of current and former drivers were honored last December at the White House by Bush.

Bush continued to court NASCAR dads by appearing at the Daytona 500 in February. While Bush was glad-handing racers and fans, the Republican National Committee set up shop to register potential voters.

People like Mehlman see the NASCAR fan, who is typically a Southern, white, working-class man, as a key to winning re-election. In 2000, candidate Bush won all the states that have the strongest concentration of NASCAR dads. In September 1992, the Democratic nominee Bill Clinton was booed at a NASCAR event.

The NASCAR dads might be a huge prize if people believe the growing popularity of the sport. NASCAR thinks as many as 75 million people follow its races, and the TV ratings are better than other sports like baseball, basketball and hockey during weekend blocks on Fox and NBC. Crowds of more than 100,000 at races are the norm.

Kerry and his Democratic strategists are unlikely to make much of an effort to go after the NASCAR crowd, which is why Kerry has talked about the New England Patriots, been seen trying to play pick-up hockey and vacationed at a ski slope. He is going after the same 18- to 34-year-old white voters, yet he is more likely to spend his capital on the MTV crowd. The NASCAR fan is very Republican, very patriotic, very loyal. It’s a group that should be in Bush’s corner.

The NASCAR dad appears to have replaced the soccer mom as the most sought-after voter of the 2004 presidential campaign and that leaves this question: Whatever happened to the soccer moms of 1996? Has motherhood changed so much that today’s mothers have no stake in the 2004 election?

It would seem that Bush and Kerry should be trying to appeal to all voters’ needs instead of a selected group.

And here is one other question as people try to woo the NASCAR dad and the 18- to 34-year-old male sports fans:

Just how many of those people plan to vote?

Evan Weiner is a radio commentator on “The Business of Sports” for Westwood One’s Metro Networks. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.

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