Obama and NASCAR in 2012: Was First Lady Booed at Race?

Whether or not Michelle Obama was booed at the NASCAR season finale in Florida  has been a matter of much discussion. Regardless of whether it happened or not, the perception that NASCAR fans would dislike the first lady – and by extension the president – is an important one as we head  into the 2012 presidential race.

Video of the first lady and Jill Biden, accompanied by a military family, telling drivers to “start their engines,” clearly seems to indicate the first lady was booed. But some people in attendance said the event was loud and disputed that any booing occurred.

Read more about Michelle Obama’s appearance at the NASCAR race Sunday.

“Mrs. Obama was proud to join NASCAR in recognizing our nation’s veterans and military families to raise awareness of this important issue for all Americans,” said Kristina Schake, Michelle Obama’s communications director,  in a statement.

NASCAR also downplayed evidence of booing.

“The NASCAR community and the vast majority of those attending our race Sunday welcomed the first lady and Dr.  Jill Biden and the military families in attendance,” said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR vice president of public affairs. “We are proud to support military families across the country and proud to support the Joining Forces initiative.”

There is no doubt that booing and sports and politics go together, and it is not just aimed at Democrats. Sarah Palin was booed at a Philadelphia Flyers game. And what at first appeared to be booing of her during a taping of “Dancing With the Stars” was later shown to be booing aimed at the judges.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell once wrote a guide to booing and sporting events.

“Politics and sports don’t mix. In fact, sports is in some ways the antithesis of politics because winning and losing is decided on the field, not how much money you raise or things like that. And politicians should generally stay away,” he wrote in April.

Plus, at sporting events, anyone can be booed. Rendell also discussed in an NPR podcast his recollection of Philadelphia Eagles fans booing Santa Claus in December 1968.

“It was one of the last games of the year. It was right before Christmas.  It was in Franklin Field, our old stadium, the Eagles had won two games that year, so the fans were just pissed off in general, and then the regular Santa Claus they were going to use for this halftime show got sick. So, they went into the stands to find guys in Santa Claus suits and see if they’d volunteer. And the only guy they found was this scrawny-looking, dirty-suit guy. He was the worst looking Santa Claus I ever saw. And they put him up on the sled. I guess they must have paid him something, and carted him around. And everyone, myself included, threw snowballs at Santa,” he told the podcast “Freakonomics” this month.

But Michelle Obama was appearing as Grand Marshall as part of her efforts to draw attention to military veterans – a slice of the population even less deserving of booing than Santa Claus. It is certainly not clear that most or even a lot of the 65,000 fans at the Homestead-Miami Speedway booed. Microphones placed for TV coverage can confuse things. And people who were present at the event did not report that booing was evident to fans in the stands. Regardless, news of the booing – real or imagined – has caught on in the media and online.

And it plays into a larger problem for the President Obama is one of perception in key parts of the country. Part of his strength in his 2008 election was his ability to flip states that had voted Republican, including Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, Virgina. Those four states also represent a good chunk of the NASCAR 2012 schedule.

Read more about President Obama’s focus on North Carolina and Virginia.

And Obama’s strategy for re-election runs straight through NASCAR country. Stock car racing is a sport that was born in Florida – a key electoral state. Democrats will hold their convention in 2012 in Charlotte.

Read more about President Obama’s approval ratings in swing states.

NASCAR Dads were a theme in the 2004 presidential election even though their existence as a swing voting bloc was was dispelled by ABC’s pollster Gary Langer in 2004.

Fans of the sport, according to NASCAR, are likely to be male and the vast majority are not minorities. White men, in other words.  Men disapprove of President Obama by 56 percent to 40 percent. And among whites, President Obama has a scant 35 percent approval rating, according to the most recent ABC News poll.

On the other hand, NASCAR fans are not known to be a Democratic base.

“The NASCAR crowd would not be a Democratic crowd anyway,” said Emory Political Science Professor Merle Black, who studies politics in the south.

He said the president’s path to reelecition, be it in the south or anywhere, has to do with the economy.

Citing the high numbers of unemployed people nationwide – the rate has hovered at or over 9 percent for years now, Black said if President Obama wants to compete again in Virginia or North Carolina, he’ll have to hope for an economic turnaround.

“Usually unemployed poeople don’t vote to reelect the people in  charge,” said Black. “It Doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican.”

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