Bryan Curtis has an interesting Slate item providing some historical context for politicians making populist appeals via sports (focusing on the dark side of populism). And Ellen Goodman notes that President Bush's campaign stop at the Daytona 500 was officially regarded as some kind of policy event — so it and the Air Force One flyover get billed to the taxpayer and not the Bush campaign.
The so-called "NASCAR Dad" isn't as easy to pigeonhole as pundits and pols seem to think, but Democrats do need to do a better job of reaching out to this constituency — it's a group whose interests, after all, are better served by the Democratic agenda. The majority of President Bush's tax cuts are not designed to benefit the majority of the people in the stands at the Daytona 500.
Reaching out to the "NASCAR" demographic means avoiding stereotypes and condescending jokes. It also means reaching out without pandering.
On this subject, I think Democrats could learn a lesson from two Republican New York City mayors.
Rudy Giuliani is a Yankees fan. I'm not a New Yorker, but like many citizens of the Big Apple, I hate the Yankees. Yet even when Giuliani visited Shea Stadium he wore his Yankees cap (a dangerous thing to do if you're not surrounded by a mayoral security detail). Like all Mets fans and right-thinking people, I dislike Giuliani's Yankees cap, but — and here's the key point — I respect him for not pretending he was something he wasn't.
Consider Mayor David Dinkins. The man wore a Mets cap at Shea and a Yankees cap at Yankee Stadium. This violates all the laws of nature. You can't root for both teams. The "NY" on your cap must either have serifs or not. It cannot be interchangeable. Dinkins' desire not to offend either group of fans ended up offending all baseball fans in New York. At least with Giuliani, Mets fans knew where they stood.
The current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is originally from Boston and reportedly remains a fan of the Sox. One might think this would exclude him from participating in New York politics, but what it actually gets him is a kind of grudging respect (mixed with pity). The unforgivable sin would have been if he had — for purely political reasons — abandoned the Red Sox and begun cheering for the Yankees or Mets. That would have demonstrated both a lack of character and a fundamental disrespect for the passion of real fans. (Even Roger Clemens had to leave the country first, pitching in Canada for two years before donning pinstripes.)
A candidate who admits he's not a NASCAR fan isn't apt to lose votes over that fact — and he is still free to reach out to those who are race fans. But a candidate who isn't a NASCAR fan yet starts to pretend he is in order to win votes will end up looking foolish and offending the very constituency he tries to reach.
So please, Democrats, don't try pretending you're a longtime fan if you're not. Instead think of it like this: There were about 180,000 race fans at the Daytona 500. Since NASCAR fans correlate closely to the general public, that means some 25,000+ people in those stands lacked health insurance. Talk about that, not about Tony Stewart.
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N.B.: I have a theory — and this is only a theory, based on the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence — that as a general trend, liberals are more likely to be Mets fans while conservatives are more likely to be Yankees fans. This is obviously not a universal rule, but if you collected, say, 100,000 Mets fans, 100,000 Yankees fans, and a control group of, say, people from Los Angeles who don't really care about baseball, I'm guessing the Mets group would skew slightly more liberal and the Yankees group slightly more conservative than the general public.
I'm not sure why this seems to be true. It may be due in part to the liberal tendency to root for the underdog (studies of Cubs or Red Sox fans could support this). Or it may be due to a subconscious desire for punishment arising from liberal guilt (ditto with the Cubs and Red Sox on that score as well). It may even have something to do with the Mets inheriting the mantle of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.