RICHMOND, Va — Conservative activists are racing to snag the pole position with NASCAR voters this election cycle.
While brand names like Skoal, Coca-Cola and Sprint competed for the hard-earned dollars of middle-class race fans on the midway of the Richmond International Speedway on a recent race day, the American Majority tent used race car simulators and patriotic banners to vie for something else: swing state voters. More than two dozen volunteers for the conservative group worked the race in Richmond on a recent weekend, trying to get fans not only to register to vote but to sign a pledge that they would make it to the polls in November.
Veteran conservative activist Ralph Reed is working the NASCAR pits as well — his Faith and Freedom Coalition sponsored the No. 32 car at the Richmond race, with the message “Register to Vote” displayed on the Ford’s hood as it zipped around the track at 100-plus miles per hour.
These conservative groups are competing for one of the richest pots in the 2012 election: the estimated 75 million NASCAR fans nationwide, who skew white, middle-class and Southern. And while the NASCAR demographic is one that naturally leans Republican, it may not be a slam-dunk this year, especially in swing states like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania, all of which President Barack Obama won in 2008, and all of which host major NASCAR races.
Unsurprisingly, it’s well-funded third-party groups like Faith and Freedom and American Majority — rather than the presidential campaigns themselves — that are doing the grass-roots work.
“I think you are going to see the most muscular and robust turnout operation directed at conservatives and center-right voters that you have ever seen,” Reed told POLITICO.
Democrats don’t seem to have nearly the organizational effort under way to lure the NASCAR voter, but the national convention is being held in the heart of NASCAR country — Charlotte — and the Democratic National Committee Host Committee is offering donors a sponsorship slot on a racing car for as little as $5 and organizing a major event at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sept. 3, just days before Obama gives his convention speech.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran Virginia Democratic operative, says Democrats shouldn’t cede the NASCAR demographic to Republicans but warned that both parties need to be careful about promoting the presidential candidates at races, since neither is a natural fit for the average NASCAR fan.
“The danger that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face is that neither one of them are ever going to be icons of the culture so therefore I’d say have some presence, but a big-time presence I’d never do it because it comes off as disingenuous,” said Saunders, who is largely credited with helping woo NASCAR fans to help Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) win his Senate seat. Warner went so far as to put his name on a race car.
“You’ve got to have the right guy to put on the race car. It’s somebody the NASCAR fans will look at and will say either they are of my culture or they respect and like my culture,” he added.
American Majority founder Ned Ryun said his groups’ effort, which includes a “seven-figure” season-long car sponsorship, is unprecedented for a conservative-leaning organization and that they are wooing voters by making a soft sell, not cramming politicians down fans’ throats.
The group is also hitting on red-meat conservative talking points from gas prices to taxes to the growth of federal government and sends out a weekly email to fans that pledge. Races are averaging about 4,000 sign-ups for the group.
“If you know something is wrong, you can see something is wrong, how are you going to engage in the process to make it better?” Ryun asked.
In addition to sponsoring a car, Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition also had about 25 volunteers also on the ground in Richmond helping register voters as part of its nationwide Champion the Vote campaign, which has a goal of registering 2 million new voters and directly contacting 37 million voters before the November election.
“We have found in our polling a significant overlap among the NASCAR vote and the faith-based vote,” said Reed, who estimates that 20 percent of NASCAR fans aren’t registered to vote.
Race Fans 4 Freedom has also gotten in on the action. While the group doesn’t specifically push fans to register to vote, it is encouraging race attendees to make their voices heard over partisan politics. The group, which has made more than 100,000 contacts with fans, is “educating them on the bad economic policies coming out of Washington and how those policies have affected their family and their favorite sport,” strategy and outreach manager Elizabeth Dyar said.
This is hardly the first time NASCAR fans have been targeted by political forces.
President George W. Bush made a major NASCAR voter registration push in 2004 and attended the Daytona 500. During Bush’s bid for reelection, his camp also circulated endorsements of nearly all team owners and drivers. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also called in the NASCAR cavalry before the November 2008 election, getting former driver Hermie Sadler on board and attending a NASCAR event in New Hampshire. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was the only presidential candidate this cycle to try to use a NASCAR sponsorship to bolster his support.
So far, neither presidential candidate is engaging in a major NASCAR offensive.
Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said the party is still working through a strategy that will ultimately be decided with Romney’s camp.
“As we look at each of the battleground states, we will be looking to maximize voter registration,” Spicer said.
The RNC has also been fielding calls from interested NASCAR types looking to get involved, according to Spicer.
“There have been some folks in the NASCAR world who have reached out and want to be helpful,” Spicer said.
So far, the Obama camp is staying mum about what presence it will have at NASCAR events this summer. A DNC spokeswoman declined to comment.
Planning is still under way for the DNC family-friendly event on Sept. 3, but Democrats held a similar event at the Denver convention in 2004 where they registered voters, recruited volunteers, conducted phone banks and did trainings.
And it appears there is some low-hanging fruit for both camps. Before American Majority sponsored his car, driver Jason Bowles wasn’t even registered to vote.
But he’s on message now.
“Elections are won by such a small amount of people, now more than ever,” Bowles said.