With the curtain opening on the drama of the 2004 campaign, the press and pundits are putting out a casting call: Which cleverly labeled demographic group will be the watchword of the unfolding race?
Who will be the "soccer mom" — the suburban women considered key in President Clinton's 1996 victory over Bob Dole — of 2004? Will it be the Nascar Dads or the Office Park Dads? Could it be gun owners, evangelical Christians or Latinos?
"They all matter," said Republican strategist and CBS News consultant Ed Rollins, who ran President Reagan's successful 1984 campaign. Looking at battleground states like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Rollins believes "three percent, two percent in some of these states makes a big difference."
Indeed, in Election 2000, the population of a decent-sized retirement village — a mere 537 people — could have decided the fate of the nation by swinging Florida.
The race three years ago produced squeakers all over the map. In six states, carrying 59 electoral votes, less than 10,000 ballots separated George W. Bush and Al Gore in an election where 101 million votes were cast and the final margin was a puny five electoral votes.
That photo finish makes the obvious even more obvious in 2004, says American Enterprise Institute analyst Karlyn Bowman: "In a close election, every group can be important."
So far, the contestants for Election Day stardom in 2004 include:
Other potential linchpins abound. Bowman, for example, is tracking people with some college education, but no degree, who represent a quarter of the electorate and tend to vote with the winner. Registered independents are also important, as is the investor class.
No practical politician treats these groups as monoliths. Instead, the idea is that Nascar dads or soccer moms "don't vote exactly alike, but you certainly can design a message to appeal to them to a certain extent," says Rollins.
Some analysts dismiss the importance of demographics du jour, believing the major parties and their anointed candidates will work hardest to energize their base supporters, as they always have.
There is certainly nothing new about the hunt for key voting blocs; only the names have changed, from "drys" and "wets" in the 1928 race, where Prohibition was a major issue, to the blue-collar Reagan Democrats of 1980 and the "angry white men" who propelled the Republican revolution of 1994.
"It hasn't changed much," Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said.
"The Democrats face the same problem they've always faced," he said. "Can they break into the suburbs around cities," specifically the cities in the heartland and the South?
That question has vexed Democrats at least since the party split in 1948 over civil rights, and certainly from the late 1960s, when FDR's New Deal coalition shredded over the Vietnam War.
For strategists and the candidates they advise, the debate is over how to identify the voters who can be swayed, and then deciding how to approach them.
To some political pros, the narrowly divided electorate — and the vast financial resources at some candidates' disposal — has changed national presidential politics into a series of separate campaigns in battleground states.
"The campaigns clearly are separating. Today it's so broken up," Rollins said. Thanks to the large war chest the president is likely to have, "a campaign like Bush's … can almost run 50 individual campaigns," targeting key voters and hitting crucial messages in each.
To others, a national message can still win. Sheinkopf, skeptical that the Democrats could win men's votes — Office Park, Nascar or otherwise — says the election will be won in the suburbs of America's heartland, by the votes of women with "younger children, older parents and worries about the future."
The way to snag those voters is by addressing education, health care, the economy, "those bread-and-butter things that are softer but have a long-term view," Sheinkopf says.
The hope is that those issues will not only appeal to regular voters, but lure new ones to the polls.
After all, the biggest (potential) swing vote is held by those who don't bother to show up at the polls — the 50 million registered voters who didn't vote in 2000, and whose electoral power is greater than the combined winning margin in the past seven presidential elections.
By Jarrett Murphy