By Producer
NBC News
updated 10/11/2007 11:19:01 AM ET 2007-10-11T15:19:01

The 2008 presidential race started way too soon for most real Americans – those who live at least 50 miles outside the Washington Beltway and can manage on less than $50 for the family dinner.

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Our short-attention-span nation generally wants our politics like we want our sports: fast-paced or hard-hitting.

So far, the 2008 presidential contest has been neither. 

The race for the White House isn’t a “horse race,” at least not yet. It’s more like the NASCAR circuit where the champion is crowned after months of competing in a series of different races, on different tracks, in different locations all across the country.

And unless you’re a die-hard fan, the only thing that seems to get everyone's attention is the big fiery crash.  

'The crash'
In politics, "the crash" is that political blunder that keeps everyone talking for the next few days.

To be called a crash, the event must have the potential to sink a campaign r at least dramatically throw if off course. With a respectful nod to author Robert Fulghum, this analogy makes me realize, everything I needed to know about politics I learned watching NASCAR.

Democratic candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., crashed first, only hours after he'd filed the paperwork to form his presidential campaign. He called Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., "the first mainstream African-American [running for president] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." In NASCAR world, that's like losing control of the wheel in the first turn and crashing against the wall while the car bursts into flames.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once considered the Republican front-runner, had a different kind of crash in July. His top two political aides quit and he was forced to layoff about 50 staffers after discovering a depleted campaign war chest.  NASCAR translation: Running terribly low on campaign gas, McCain frantically heads for pit row only to crash into members of his own crew, running over a couple in the process.

There really haven't been too many other spectacular crashes so far. Sure, there’s always the “inside the speedway” stuff – the fender benders that political junkies follow – but nothing that's really caught fire.

So why haven’t the crashes so far been fatal?

For the answer, look again to NASCAR.

It’s all about the pit crew.

If you have a good one, along with a good driver, you'll stay competitive in the chase.  

The pit crew is all about maintaining the car, and more importantly, fixing what's broken. It's possible to have a small crash, pull into pit row, get fixed up, and get back on the track quickly. 

If it's a horrific crash, your crew can rebuild your car for the next race. In politics, the pit crew is that tight circle of advisors including the campaign manager, finance director, strategists, and consultants.

When Biden crashed, he and his pit crews worked like greased lightening to repair the damage. A good pit crew can get you in and out in about 15 seconds and the Biden rapid response team was almost as fast.

Immediately after the story broke, he'd called Obama and apologized, held a conference call with reporters, and released a written statement. It got Biden back in the race, but he's really no closer to the championship because, well, Biden just doesn't have enough gas. 

Gas equals cash
In campaigns, gas equals cash. You can't finish and it's impossible to win without it. You could argue that cash is more important than the pit crew. With enough cash, you can always find people to work.

For McCain's crash, his pit crew wasn't supplying him with enough gas. And when he realized he had 450 miles to go in the Presidential 500 and was running on fumes, his crew chiefs had to step aside.  

Some observers would contend he started out with plenty of gas, but was burning through it like a Hummer in New York City at rush hour.

McCain re-staffed and re-gassed. He’s now running a leaner campaign... on ethanol. While one could argue his crash was not as spectacular as Biden's, it resulted in a quick and dramatic fall from presumed front-runner to notable backbencher.

The other candidates have avoided the big crashes by employing one of the oldest techniques in racing: drafting.

The official NASCAR website describes it this way: "The lead car, by displacing the air in front of it, creates a vacuum between its rear end and the nose of the following car, actually pulling the second car along with it."

In other words, once one candidate has safely addressed a sticky issue, his or her party colleagues can slide in behind them to share the benefits without taking the initial risk.

At the Democratic debate in New Hampshire last month, it was a draft house. 

Moderator Tim Russert threw out a tough question to Joe Biden. By answering first, he took on the headwinds. Then the same question was asked of Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.  "I agree with Joe on this," he said, as he slid in tight behind the Biden car. 

Later on a different topic, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said, "You know... I agree with what Joe and Barack [Obama] have said."  And then Obama himself said, "You know, I feel very similar to John [Edwards]."

Right now the presidential race has the feel of almost everyone running under the yellow caution flag. That's when an incident on the track forces every car to slow down and maintain its position. No one can pass another driver – and nobody tries.

Still, NASCAR, like politics, has a process in place designed to weed out the weak.  "The Chase," as it's called, narrows the field for the top twelve drivers to compete for the championship.

In politics, the chase is the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.  When the checkered flags come down on these races early next year, several drivers will realize the price of gas is too high to continue.  Others, desperate to advance, may get reckless and crash.

As the field of candidates narrows, the distance to the finish line for each eventual nominee will be within sight. From a hotel room in Iowa, a reporter might then write of a different kind of race:  “America, we’ve got ourselves a real horse race here… And they’re off!”

Ken Strickland covers politics for NBC News.

© 2013  Reprints


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments