Key Demographics Emerge Early in 2004 Race

NASCAR dads are generally white, working class and rural -- as well as racing fans -- and they could emerge as a leading demographic force in the 2004 elections.

“Sometime they vote, sometime they don’t, and when they do, they tend to vote Republican, but can be persuaded to vote for a populist Democrat,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, describing the NASCAR dads (search).

Also called softball dads or office park dads, they are expected to be one of three major forces in 2004, along with married white females and Hispanics.

Sen. Bob Graham (search), who is seeking the Democratic primary nomination, has already figured out the potential strength of NASCAR dads and has made an effort to reach out to them by plastering his name on a Craftsman truck participating in the NASCAR circuit.

Graham has suggested that his more liberal opponents have no chance of winning the group over, but the Florida Democrat may also have trouble attracting the crowd, said one expert.

“White males are not a swing vote; they are a Republican constituency,” said election analyst Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Report.

Al Gore (search) received only 36 percent of the white male vote against George Bush in 2000, less than Bill Clinton (search) in either 1992 or 1996. In a poll recently released by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, now only 24 percent of white males consider themselves Democrats.

Democrats may have a better chance at wooing the two other major groups, say experts.

“In terms of swing voters -- white suburban moms and the Hispanic vote -- there’s been a lot of discussion there,” said Ed Goeas, Republican pollster for the Tarrance Group in Washington, D.C.

Shrewdly labeled “soccer moms” in the 1990s for their status as suburban mothers who spend their days shuttling kids back and forth to extracurricular activities, the group of women targeted by candidates in the next presidential race can also be described as married, frequently working moms, said one poll-cruncher.

According to Scott Keeter, associate director for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Democrats overall have enjoyed a slight advantage with women, but their success lies with single, working women, rather than married women with children who increasingly vote Republican.

“Married, working women fall in the middle,” and though they lean Republican, they are still considered more independent and therefore politically up for grabs, noted Keeter.

"I’d say it is a swing group, you can’t count on them for either party,” said Sabato. 

So far, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has seen the advantage of tapping into the group. He has collected $1 million so far -- more than any other candidate -- from women who describe themselves as "homemakers." Most are married to lawyers who have contributed millions to Edwards' campaign.

But according to the DLC, 54 percent of married women said they prefer the GOP. While the moms are an important faction, pollster Mark J. Penn warned that suburban parents overall need to be addressed.

Noting that “marriage and child-rearing are key life cycle events in dictating attitudes toward political parties,” Penn, who conducted the DLC poll, said, “No Democrat will win the White House in 2004 without an agenda that speaks directly to middle-class parents.”

But the excitement over this demographic may be eclipsed by increasing chatter over the so-called Hispanic vote, which both sides claim to have growing influence with today.

“They have tilted towards Democrats, but with President Bush’s successes with them, there is reason to believe that Republicans can tap into that group,” charges Goeas.

The population of approximately 35.5 million Hispanics in the U.S. is growing rapidly, and the percentage of Hispanic voters is expected to leap to 7 percent from 5 percent in 2000.

A recent Republican National Committee poll found that more Hispanics than ever consider themselves conservative rather than liberal. But a New Democrat Network poll released in June found that Bush would receive only 34 percent of the Hispanic vote when matched up with a Democrat.

The discrepancy underscores that no one party can claim a hold on Hispanic voters, said Robert de Posada, president of the Washington-based Latino Coalition.

“I think it is somewhere in the middle, where most Hispanics lie," he said.

That is not the case with the black vote, increasingly marginalized, say some observers, because of their historically Democratic support -- nearly 90 percent of African-Americans voted for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. As a result, Republicans make less appeals to them, say election experts, and Democrats only pay attention to their issues long enough to get them out to the polls.

The impact of the black vote lies in the Democratic primaries, where pollsters say it is too early to discern whom they will support. According to a recent poll by the Black American Political Action Committee, a conservative PAC, 42 percent of black voters are still undecided, but 67 percent said they will vote in the primary.

Experts point to Catholics and senior citizens as additional swing groups that both parties will be sure to woo -- and even more importantly -- swing states, like Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon.

“[Elections] are like three-dimensional chess contests,” said Sabato, "the battles are everywhere, all the time.”