Saturday, February 19, 2011

So Much for the NASCAR Vote

It wasn't a good week to be a Democratic member of the U.S. House. They could only watch as the new Republican majority voted to de-fund a number of their pet programs, ranging from public broadcasting to Parenthood.

Never mind the proposed cuts won't survive in a Democrat-controlled Senate--and even if they did, President Obama would almost certainly veto them. That wasn't enough for some House Democrats who decided to fight back, by offering amendments to cut funding for programs favored by Republicans and their constituents.

Of course, the Democrats would never admit they were taking shots at the GOP, just as Republicans are making their cuts in the name of reducing the budget deficit. But, if you can cut the red ink by a few million bucks--while reducing the power of a group that aids your political opponent--so much the better.

Against that backdrop, Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum has proposed trimming $7 million from the Pentagon's recruiting and marketing budget--money currently used to sponsor NASCAR teams. "The military shouldn't be in the business of sponsoring race cars, they should be in the business of fighting wars," said McCollum's chief of staff, Bill Harper.

Apparently, neither Mr. Harper (nor his boss) know much about stock-car racing and its appeal. As John Fund notes in The Wall Street Journal, marketing research shows a strong correlation between the sport and military recruiting. NASCAR is very popular in regions where young people are most likely to join the armed forces. One in three members of the military is a NASCAR fan.

And, the days when stock car racing was strictly a "regional" sport are long since gone. The NASCAR circuit now includes regular stops in California, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Arizona and New York, venues far removed from the sport's origins in the rural south. Races in those areas attract hundreds of thousands of fans--and millions of TV viewers.

So, from a marketing perspective, a stock car with the Army or National Guard logo would seem to be a wise investment. And, the military's relationship with NASCAR extends beyond the track. Cars (and drivers) sponsored by the armed forces make regular appearances at the nation's schools, allowing recruiters to reach more potential recruits. Ryan Newman, who drives the Army-sponsored #39 Chevrolet, says the sponsorship program has given recruiters access to schools that would normally be off-limits.

Obviously, Mr. Newman has a vested interest in the sponsorship program. But in the era of an all-volunteer military, effective marketing is essential. NASCAR and the military would seem to be an ideal match, and the Army is reportedly satisfied with its long-standing partnership. However, the Navy and Marine Corps ended their NASCAR sponsorships in recent years, claiming they were unable to gauge the effectiveness of those efforts.

Mr. Fund sees the McCollum amendment (which was voted down by a big margin) as the Democrats' giving up on the so-called NASCAR vote. Not long ago, the party was courting that demographic, noting the success of politicians like Virginia Senator Mark Warner, who are high-profile fans of the sport. But John Kerry and Barack Obama didn't win the votes of many "NASCAR dads" in 2004 and 2008, so the Democrats are looking elsewhere. And in the interim, why not cut military sponsorship for a sport that trends Republican?

It's hardly surprising that McCollum's de-funding effort fell short. Not only did she raise the ire of NASCAR fans (her office reportedly received hundreds of angry phone calls), several of McCollum's colleagues asked her to make the controversy "go away." Most recognized it as little more than a political stunt; while McCollum's amendment would have eliminated NASCAR sponsorships, it preserved military advertising and marketing for drag racing teams. The Congresswoman didn't say why it was acceptable for the military do support drag racing, while NASCAR was unacceptable.

What a surprise.

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