NEW YORK – From NASCAR dads to college students to security moms, certain demographic groups and swing voters could be key to the 2004 election.
In 1996, suburban "soccer moms" worried about abortion rights, civil liberties, education and Social Security and wanted a female-friendly leader. Their husbands later became "office park dads," upscale men with college degrees and business careers. In 1994, "angry white men" were fuming at President Clinton and helped make Newt Gingrich (search) speaker of the House.
"Waitress moms" caught the eyes of candidates in 1998. These women were working too hard to take their kids to soccer games, earning the sympathy of compassionate candidates. In 2000, "wired workers" — a well-educated, technology-savvy and libertarian-leaning group of people — were targeted by both Al Gore and George W. Bush.
Now, demographics are becoming frighteningly more specific and target groups, like swing states, are emerging as the most coveted voters.
"The most important question in term of swing voters in 2004 is how many of them are there — and I think that's the question pollsters are struggling with and both political parties are struggling with," said Carroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Center (search).
Doherty estimated that perhaps 15 percent of the electorate is up for grabs, though other experts say it's closer to 7 to 10 percent. The number of undecided voters is shrinking as people line up with the party that best represents their views, Doherty said.
Plenty of tools out there can help the candidates target their campaigns and win over the remaining up-for-grabs electorate.
Claritas Inc.'s PRIZM NE, for example, categorizes the nation's residents by marital status and lifestyle data.
The "young digerati" cluster represents the nation's tech-savvy singles and couples living in fashionable neighborhoods on the urban fringe. "Beltway Boomers" are 40- to 50-year-old, college-educated, upper-middle-class homeowners who married late and are still raising children in the suburbs. "Cosmopolitans," concentrated in fast-growing metro areas like Las Vegas, Miami and Albuquerque, are older homeowners, empty nesters and college graduates who enjoy leisure-intensive lifestyles.
"It provides valuable information to political candidates about the makeup of the population and how they can target messages based on that makeup," said Claritas spokesman Stephen Moore.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Bush's response to them, marked a major turning point in party identification, according to a Pew Research Center study released last month. Republican Party identification rose to 30 percent while the Democrats fell to 31 percent.
According to the study, swing states became evenly divided after Sept. 11: 33 percent Republican and 33 percent Democrat. Before that, Democrats maintained an advantage over Republicans, 36 percent to 31 percent.
"In any election, about 70-80 percent of the voters know what they're going to do a year before the election," said Thomas Riehle, president of Ipsos-Public Affairs. But for the other 20-30 percent who don't have strong political loyalties, "little things can move them in big ways, there's no anchor to their views," he said.
College students will be one key swing voter group. According to an April 2003 poll by the Harvard University Institute of Politics (search), of 1,200 students surveyed, 41 percent identified themselves as independents, 29 percent as Democrats and 26 percent as Republicans.
"NASCAR dads" — white, working-class men — are being courted as the new demographic power group. They're vital to Bush because seven of the southern and western states he won in 2000 — where NASCAR has a huge fan base — have gained 11 electoral votes.
According to Pew, of those who like NASCAR, about 60 percent approve of Bush while 30 percent disapprove; Democrats are trying to make more gains here.
Other voters important in 2004 are "security moms," who, since Sept. 11, are increasingly concerned with making sure airline pilots have guns in cockpits, the Pentagon has whatever resources it needs and anything can be sacrificed — including some civil liberties — to keep their kids safe.
"I will never forget the fear that gripped [my children] after 9-11," wrote "Julie," a mother of two, on the "Security Moms for [Howard] Dean," Web site. "I am certain that four more years of George Bush will only bring more wars and more attacks."
But what security moms will do at the polls remains to be seen.
"They've changed their minds on a variety of topics," said Doherty, including the Iraq war. "When they actually go to vote, are they going be voting on domestic issues, the economy, health care, things like that, or are they going to be more motivated by terrorism or security?"
An Ipsos-Public Affairs poll released this month also shows Bush losing support in the more Republican South, particularly when it comes to the economy.
A different Ipsos-Public Affairs/Cook Political Report poll in July showed that a key group of swing voters — predominantly moderate southern male Democrats with no college experience who have sales or skilled trade positions — believe that the war with Iraq was worth fighting, but also think that the Bush administration exaggerated its evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. These voters are extremely negative about Bush's handling of domestic issues, according to the poll.
This group "could pose a big problem for President Bush," Riehle said. "They have real doubts about Bush on the economy even though they really like his foreign policy. That's going to be the critical group ... he's got to convince them that tax cuts are going improve his job security and that's a hard sell."