When Howard Dean caused a stir among Democrats with his comments about "guys with Confederate flags in their pickups" and Sen. Zell Miller's book took his party to the woodshed, they were really making the same point: George W. Bush won every state in the South in 2000, and if he does it again, he'll bank more than half the electoral votes he needs for re-election.
A huge part of Mr. Bush's success in that sweep was the white male vote, which cast more than one-third of all the votes in the South and backed him over Al Gore by a whopping 70 to 27 percent. So naturally they're now on the minds of Democrats for 2004. And they've already inspired a label, much like the one given to the "Soccer moms" of 1996: they're the "NASCAR" vote. They may not all be race fans, and they mostly vote Republican, but a lot of them are also middle- and working-class in the midst of a rough economy. Can the Democrats really make inroads with these voters and try to take back some of the South, or would they just be, ahem, spinning their wheels?
A recent CBS News poll shows there isn't much disappointment with President Bush among the white Southern men who voted for him back in 2000; they think the country is on the right track today. Eight out of 10 approve of the job the president is doing on the economy, and less than one in five think the economy is in bad shape; seven in 10 believe Mr. Bush has more integrity and honesty than most other people in public life; and over 80 percent approve of the way he is handling the situation in Iraq.
The South, and these types of voters in particular, has steadily become more Republican over the last 30-plus years. But sometimes, deep economic troubles get voters to break with long-standing voting habits. Whether or not the recent slump qualifies as such a trauma is for the voters to decide, but one theory (voiced by Howard Dean and others) is that the Democrats should compete for these middle- and working-class voters next year by focusing on pocketbook issues and shifting the debate away from the social and cultural issues that are such GOP strengths in the region. That presumes, though, that Democrats need only shift voters' gaze and not their perceptions; that a Democrat would in fact be seen as better on the economy.
The survey shows that these voters don't necessarily think the Democratic Party is any better at handling the economy or creating jobs. Among all whites in the South, it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, that voters say are best able to create jobs, by a 39 percent to 32 percent edge; and Republicans are also seen as better able to ensure a strong economy. Among white men, specifically, there's no Democratic advantage on economic issues, either. White men split on which party would be best at creating jobs and more of them give the GOP the edge on being able to build a strong economy.
Some of these responses are driven simply by the fact that most of these men are Republicans. Democrats do better among southern white males who say they're independent (about one-third of them); these men see the Democrats as best on the economy by 49 to 37 percent.
Working- and middle-class white men are the ones most likely to be targeted by Democrats' economic appeals, but these NASCAR voters do not give the Democrats any edge on strengthening the economy, either. White men in under-$50,000 households rate the Democrats as about even with the GOP on the ability to create jobs. In fact, they're as likely to say that the GOP is the party that cares most about "people like them" as to say that the Democrats care the most.
In the South, as elsewhere, the question of whether or not a party cares about "people like you" is not simply a matter of economics, but also about shared moral values. When these Southern voters say a party shares their values, they're also likely to say the party "cares about people like them." They equate morality with caring at nearly the same rate that they connect a party being best on the economy with caring. And in the South, there isn't much question among white men about which party they think shares their values: it's the GOP by two-to-one.
All of which underscores the fact that there are issues in play besides the economy. The war on terror could pose another challenge for Democrats, and more than a few have suggested that their image on national defense, even more than the economy, will be critical to their fortunes. By a nearly three-to-one margin, white Southern men see the GOP as better able to keep the U.S. safe from more attacks. Democrats even have trouble on this issue with their own partisans. Less than half of white male Southern Democrats think their own party is better able to keep the country safe from terrorism; one in five concedes that mantle to the Republicans and another quarter says they don't know which party is best at it.
So maybe the Democrats don't have the pole – or even a spot in the front row – in the race to get the NASCAR vote. The party images aren't final, though. Once a nominee is chosen, that person will be able to influence the direction of the party. And for most voters, Campaign 2004 hasn't really even started yet. But the engines sure are revving.
By Anthony Salvanto