- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Travis Johnson is just the type of voter the Democratic Party hopes to win back in its effort to regain control of Congress in the November elections.

Baking in the sun at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 23-year-old Danville, Ill., resident wears a black T-shirt sporting NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson’s face. He looks like the epitome of the young, white, socially conservative, working-class voters who have been key backers of Republicans in the past decade.

But with U.S. troops dying in Iraq, unrest in the Middle East and gasoline prices soaring, he is not sure how he will vote.

“For the most part, I’m a tossup. I’m not dedicated to either party,” Mr. Johnson said earlier this month as he and 270,000 other fans waited for the start of the Allstate 400 race.

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.”

NASCAR fans, or more specifically “NASCAR dads,” were highly courted voters in 2004. 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 this month by Zogby International found that while more than half of NASCAR fans voted for President 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 what are regarded as family values — stances against abortion, same-sex “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,” said Paula Schmidt, an accountant from Indianapolis. “I don’t think [Mr. Bush] will ever lose his NASCAR fans. At least not this one.”

But Mrs. Schmidt, a 41-year-old mother of four girls, added that she thought some Democrats were taking a more centrist 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. Saunders said it is “somewhat socially and culturally unacceptable” for rural voters to identify themselves as Democrats, but blamed that on candidates who don’t visit rural areas.

Pollster John Zogby agreed: “The Democrats are going to have to learn to talk to NASCAR fans.”

With the increase in NASCAR’s popularity, some analysts say the idea of a “NASCAR voter” bloc has been watered down. Mr. Ayres does not agree.

“Did country-music fans change when country music moved beyond the South?” he asked. “What you do is attract a group of people with similar values.”

If that’s 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.”

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