x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Romney eyes the Nascar vote

Nascar fans are now considered to constitute a voting bloc and in a tight election, their votes are potentially game changing.

Supporters of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney await his arrival for a campaign rally at the Nascar Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina in August. Saul Loeb / AFP
Supporters of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney await his arrival for a campaign rally at the Nascar Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina in August. Saul Loeb / AFP

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA // A rain-delayed start to last Saturday's race meant Mitt Romney had to forgo the pleasure of announcing the start of the race, eliciting a full-throated roar from the crowd with just four words: "Drivers, start your engines."

Instead, the Republican presidential candidate did what any politician would do in the midst of eligible voters - he pressed the flesh, posed for photographs, served hot dogs - and hoped to be noticed.

Saturday was Mr Romney's opportunity to impress what some are suggesting should be defined as "Nascar Nation". The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing - Nascar - is the second most watched sport in America. Only the National Football League has bigger television ratings. Nascar also brings in twice as much sponsorship money as the NFL, according to Investopedia.com, and claims as many as 75 million fans.

Every American presidential election seems to throw up a new everyman character to whom presidential wannabes must appeal to win the coveted Oval Office. There has been Soccer Mom and Office Park Dad, Campus Kids and Freestyle Evangelicals. Each supposedly represents a segment of society critical to any given election.

In a tight election with ten swing states, a Nascar Nation that spans the whole country could be game-changing.

And it is a Republican vote for the taking, according to activists and analysts. Nascar fans "trend" conservative, said Ned Ryun, the president of American Majority, a grassroots political training organisation for conservative candidates and activists, which has identified Nascar Nation as a "really significant demographic".

Although Nascar Dad - white, lower middle class, blue-collar workers - was a fixture of elections in 2004, this is the first time the sport's fans are being collectively targeted.

All season this year, the organisation has run a "pledge-to-vote" campaign at Nascar races, and even sponsored its own car, a multimillion-dollar undertaking.

American Majority promotes a conservative message of "fiscal responsibility and limited government", Mr Ryun said.

"Of course we can't tell them how to vote. But we know if you go to an Evangelical church and do a non-partisan voter registration drive, 80 per cent will vote a certain way," he said. At the Richmond race last Saturday that would seem to be any way but the incumbent president, Barack Obama.

Bobby Cole, 29, a lorry driver from West Virginia, called the US president a "socialist", a common refrain in some circles and one that Mr Romney used repeatedly during the Republican primaries.

"It's time for Obama to leave before he takes away more of our freedoms," Mr Cole said emphatically. He was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Republican logo and a no-nonsense reference to the White House resident: "So far, he sucks."

"I'm voting for Romney," Mr Cole said, gesturing with a half-empty bottle of beer in the direction of Mr Romney's entourage.

Also not voting for Mr Obama were Monty Crawford, 58, a utility construction manager from Covington, Virginia, and his wife Jannie, 60, assistant to a local judge, who had voted for Mr Obama last time. They were both much less emphatic than Mr Cole about Mr Romney.

Nascar fans, according to data from Scarborough Research, a market research company that did a large year-long study between 2010 and last year, are overwhelmingly white and lower-middle to middle class. They are also more likely to be blue-collar - working in construction, transportation, mining and manufacturing. A man with Mr Romney's wealth, the Crawfords agreed, could not truly represent the "folk around here".

Mrs Crawford also worried about what a President Romney might do to Medicare - state health care for the elderly that Republicans argue needs to be slashed to help reduce America's budget deficit.

Their reservations point to a broader problem for a Republican Party yet to fully internalise that it is replacing Democrats as the party of blue-collar America, said Bryon Allen, a Republican pollster with the Washington-based Wilson, Perkins, Allen Opinion Research firm.

"A Nascar fan is never going to love a guy who feels most comfortable in a suit and tie," Mr Allen said, and the predominantly "white collar" Republican leadership is slow in realising the change that is happening in the party's demographic.

"There is something of a divide in terms of our actual base voters being able to relate to some of our leaders and candidates," Mr Allen said.

Mr Romney's choice of Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin budget hawk who is closely identified with the Tea Party faction of the Republican party, has helped him with that demographic.

But Mr Romney also has a penchant for not understanding his audience. Rather than connect with race fans at the Daytona 500 in February, he managed only to underline the gulf separating them when he said he had "friends who are Nascar owners".

There were no similar gaffes in Richmond. He would not, for example, be drawn on his favourite driver, soft-shoeing instead about having "many favourite drivers".

Still, a vote for Mr Romney by Nascar Nation is as much a vote against Mr Obama, and even here Scarborough data suggest the picture is a little more complex.

Nascar fans are 26 per cent more likely to vote Republican than the general public, but just under a quarter also say they are Democrats.

One of those, Henry Mease, 63, a retired Richmond police detective, said Democrats were losing an opportunity by not reaching out to Nascar Nation.

The "working man is instead responding to the values" of the Tea Party.