If hunters want to bag a goose, they set the right decoys and make the right calls. If anglers want to catch a rockfish, they pick the right fly and use the right cast. And if political campaigns want to win the vote of a sportsman, they present a candidate that a sportsman can be proud of back at the lodge.
Each election cycle, campaigns from Big Sky, Mont., to Big Cypress, Fla., organize sportsmen coalitions to win over the votes of Americans who hunt and fish. Some of these efforts are well-planned and aggressive, such as canvassing backwoods turkey shoots with campaign literature and hunter-orange bumper stickers. Others are mere facades of grassroots coalitions that simply buy Field & Stream subscription lists and barrage readers with direct mail.
Ultimately, these coalitions have roughly the same goals: to identify and organize a significant voting bloc, convince that group that their candidate shares sportsmen's concerns and get hunters and anglers involved in the campaign.
By all estimates, this is a rich and deep well of voters. Between 38 million [PDF] and 53 million Americans hunt and fish, depending on who is counting1, and this constituency tends to be politically astute. Years of perceived infringement on both gun-ownership rights and habitat have trained sportsmen to be particularly aware of politics.
Most sportsmen argue that they are a potent force in both parties.
"When you look at a Republican primary election, this is a very important" group, said David Rexrode, coalitions director for John McCain 2008, noting that sportsmen are typically rural, conservative voters. For this same reason, many Democrats from rural states feel it's important to reach out to sportsmen to debunk an urban, liberal stereotype.
"Democrats have gotten whacked on guns," said Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen Caucus, adding that the Second Amendment is "probably the most important thing to sportsmen." The National Rifle Association, a one-issue shop, stands as one of politics' most powerful and influential lobbying organizations.
Al Gore's perceived sympathy for gun control may have cost him the electoral votes of West Virginia, New Hampshire, Arkansas and Tennessee in 2000. Democrats may have learned that lesson by the 2006 election, choosing gun-friendly candidates in states like Pennsylvania, which claims 300,000 NRA members. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D) was able to neutralize then-incumbent Rick Santorum (R) on the issue, because both candidates received an "A" rating from the NRA.
"You've seen the sting of candidates getting on the wrong side of the Second Amendment," remarked NRA President Wayne LaPierre.
But some strategists say gun control is no longer the wedge issue it once was. "We're not going to fall into that trap again," vows David "Mudcat" Saunders, a rural strategist for John Edwards for President. He points out that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other leading Democrats get high marks from gun-advocacy groups.
Rather, Saunders argues that the "No. 1 issue facing sportsmen is the loss of habitat" and that candidates courting sportsmen can win on a platform of conservation -- so long as they don't confuse "conservation" with "environmentalism."
"'Environmentalist' -- that sounds like someone who lives naked in a tree and eats nuts with the big nose ring," quipped Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D-Mont. "But when you say, 'I want protect the places where you like to hunt, camp and fish,' well, you bet [voters are] for that."
Rexrode explained that John McCain's campaign intends to identify even more precise issues. He said that in New Hampshire and Michigan, McCain's team will focus on snowmobiling; in South Carolina and Florida, it will focus on fishing; in other states, conservation.
1The Census Bureau figures are considered the most accurate but also the most conservative; the tally is based on registered documents and permits. Many states, however, do not require such documents, especially for saltwater fishing, and many sportsmen hunt and fish on private land or boats, so those numbers are likely to be an underestimate.
Cobbling together a consensus
Rexrode acknowledged that a large part of building these coalitions is "getting people organized, getting people into a network. Make sure people have a stake in the campaign," he suggested. Some campaigns have to build from scratch, but others can access voter lists from the NRA and other organizations. LaPierre boasts that an NRA endorsement delivers a "family of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions of people."
Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) was able to tap into a different network in his 2001 campaign. Warner, at the behest of Saunders, enlisted a Roanoke, Va., outfitter named Sherry Crumley to chair his sportsmen coalition. At the time, Crumley had just led a successful effort to amend the Virginia constitution to guarantee the right "to hunt, fish and harvest game;" and she knew practically every sportsman up and down the Blue Ridge.
Once a campaign builds a coalition of sportsmen, a candidate still needs to engage the network.
"We had workers in every county," Crumley said, recalling that "Sportsmen for Warner" had a presence at "turkey shoots, NASCAR events, county fairs, anywhere there was an audience of sportsmen."
Similarly, the McCain team hopes its sportsmen coalition will "educate" voters about the senator's record -- and that of his opponents.
But a candidate needs to prove that his or her efforts are genuine. John Kerry's goose hunt in late 2004, for example, was ridiculed as a photo opportunity cooked up in Washington, D.C. And the No. 1 issue on the "Sportsmen for Kerry" platform was fully funding national parks -- which don't even allow hunting.
Saunders scoffed at Kerry's outreach, saying, "You can't turn it over to the Harvards."
Schweitzer argues that message matters, but so does sincerity: "Speak in a way that shows you know how to catch a fish," he advises. "Speak about in a way that they know that you know how to handle a gun."
When a candidate can make that connection, LaPierre argues, it "goes beyond the Second Amendment into a judgment of that person's character."
Schweitzer and others are certain that sportsmen will vote on the issues that matter to them, and that building a robust sportsmen coalition can be a key to success.
"You could come out and [conduct a] poll in Montana and you'd never pick it up," he said. "You'll never pick up that the thing that really drives them is hunting and fishing.... It might be eighth on their list, but it's the one that they will vote on."