WASHINGTON – NASCAR (search) dad, meet soccer mom. She could give you some pointers on what it's like to be part of a voting bloc the political parties are eager to woo.
Each election year, pollsters, political scientists and media pundits come up with catch-phrases to coin a demographic group they think might influence the outcome — voting blocs also known as "swing voters."
"Soccer moms" — mainly suburban, white women — helped President Clinton win the 1992 and 1996 elections.
"Waitress moms" were chic in 1998. The profile: white, under 50 with no college degree, living in the suburbs or rural areas and sometimes working two jobs.
The 2000 campaign brought attention to "wired workers" — mainly young, upwardly mobile, high-tech types.
This year, political observers are talking about the "exurbs," areas well outside of city centers and populated by white, highly educated, well-paid families who abandoned the suburbs for better schools and more land. Exurban voters, concerned with taxes and the economy, have been critical to GOP victories in recent elections.
While a catchy label typically won't sway the vote of someone who fits a category, says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, they can help guide mailings and phone calls from campaigns desperately trying to attract more swing voters.
Labels also give campaign operatives and rank-and-file staffers a visual of exactly who is being targeted. A term like "waitress mom" is more descriptive than a dry, demographic definition of a possible voter.
"Political campaigns put resources not in people who have a persistent and stubborn voting patterns, but into people who agree with them and who are likely voters," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Center for Politics at Rutgers University.
However, Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who has worked with Democratic colleague Celinda Lake on bipartisan polls, says he tries to avoid labels in part because they could have multiple definitions among people in the same campaign.
"NASCAR dads" is one example. Coined by Lake, the term describes blue-collar workers and auto racing fans generally considered to be social conservatives. These dads are "pretty Republican," Lake says, but could be swayed by economic issues to vote Democratic. "They are concerned about where the jobs are going," she says.
Yet the sport, which has its roots in the South, is growing in popularity nationwide and among both men and women, making the demographic less specific.
Some campaign strategists might think efforts to target NASCAR dads should be based in the South, while others might think they should be national in scope. Others might want to expand strategies to target women, and still others might believe more research would develop a better description of whom to target.
"Then by the time you get to who you are talking about, it's a pretty small group," says Goeas, adding that he prefers to talk in wider strokes with terms like "union voters" or "white conservative Christians."
This election year, NASCAR dads don't seem to be getting as much attention as broader blocs like the "exurban" voter, or Hispanics, who generally vote Democratic but are being targeted by Republicans.
Many Democrats increasingly look at single women as a crucial group. Exit polling from the 2000 presidential election shows they preferred Democrat Al Gore over George W. Bush by more than 30 percentage points.
Their challenge is getting these women to the polls. In 2000, nearly 22 million unmarried women who were registered to vote did not, and another 16 million did not register.
A Democratic poll conducted in part by Lake's firm found that one reason these women didn't vote was that they thought their concerns about education, jobs and health care were being ignored.