By Elizabeth Dwoskin, Businessweek
April 13, 2012
On Tuesday, President Obama will host Nascar champion Tony Stewart and a group of Nascar executives at the White House. How does a president who spends his weekends playing golf and basketball bring Nascar fans into his camp? We called Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a political strategist who’s spent years advising Democrats on how to appeal to red-state voters, to find out.
What do you think of President Obama inviting Tony Stewart to the White House next Tuesday?
Tony Stewart adds extra credibility. He’s what a Nascar driver used to be like. He’s a throwback driver, he’s rough-and-tumble. A lot of older fans really like him. Smoke—that’s his nickname—he’s well thought of in garage areas. Anything that Obama can do to soften himself with the rural culture is a good thing. I think it’s a real smart move.
Are Nascar fans going to play a role in re-electing Obama come November? They’re not exactly his base.
For the Republicans who live by the wedges of guns, God, and gays, Romney is not going to have those wedges. The reason is very simple. He can’t do God ’cause he’s a Mormon. He can’t do guns ’cause he never saw a piece of anti-gun legislation he didn’t like. And he can’t do gays ’cause he supported civil unions. Romney is the antithesis of the Nascar culture. One thing Romney has going for him—and that’s going to be really, really hard—is that he’s got an R by his name. Where I live, the Democrats have been a bruised brand for a long time.
Speaking of which, Romney went to a Nascar event and told an interviewer that he wasn’t an ardent fan but counted many Nascar team owners as his close friends. The press mocked him as an elitist.
A lot of the time, I don’t understand the press. That didn’t hurt him at all. So you say: ‘He’s friends with team owners.’ So maybe he’s friends with Joe Gibbs, with Jack Roush, with Richard Petty. Those guys aren’t looked at as a bunch of elitist rich guys. They are revered people. I don’t there’s anything at all elitist about that comment.
You are credited with helping to get Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, the rural vote when he ran for governor of Virginia in 2001. Can Obama pull off something similar?
I don’t like being credited with nothing. Neither Obama nor Romney will ever be considered icons of the culture. What a lot of people don’t understand about Nascar in politics, we were the first guys to ever use it.
You mean, the first time a politician attended a Nascar race?
I mean the first time a politician ran a car at a Nascar race. You can only be novel one time. Since then, politicians have rushed to the track. And it worked beautiful for Warner. Warner said, “I’ve never been to a Nascar race before. I’m not from the culture. But I love it. It’s fun.” And for that reason, he’s the only Democrat for 40 years in Virginia to carry the rural vote.
So he was able to do it and seem genuine.
He was genuine. Warner in reality really does like the culture.
So if you can only be novel one time, can Obama do it without looking like he’s pandering? He didn’t win that vote in 2008.
That depends on what the drivers say. Look, you don’t have to be from the culture to get respect from the culture. And if you’re there and you look like you’re enjoying the culture—and you can’t fake it—people appreciate it.
Michelle Obama was reportedly booed at a Nascar event. What do you think about that?
Doesn’t surprise me. These people have been disproportionately hit by the downturn in the economy. Is it rude? Of course, it’s rude.
If you were advising the Obama camp, what would you tell them?
I’d send Joe Biden out. And I’d go nationalist, and I’d go economic populist. Joe Biden can do something Obama can’t do, and that’s show his teeth. Say: “We’re going to do something to come up with these jobs.” And a nationalist approach. We’re patriots in rural America. We love America. And we believe we can be great again. Have you read the Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun? When times are darkest, the tribe will turn to the toughest, meanest son-of-a-bitch for leadership. I tell you, I’d use Biden. The Obama camp came and talked to me a few weeks ago and that’s what I told them.