Barack Obama Should Fish for Votes Among Hunters and Sportsmen

If he can make an environmental pitch to hunters and fishers, he could win in November.

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Even leaving aside Palin's understandable support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—something most Alaskans favor—big questions remain about her overall environmental commitment. She's reticent about dealing with global warming, despite the possible impact on habitat and wildlife, and is taking the federal government to court over protection for endangered polar bears—something even the Bush administration supports. Of more immediate concern to anglers is Palin's unwillingness to oppose the proposed Pebble Mine project that threatens Alaska's famed Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Though it does not get many headlines in the lower 48, the proposed Pebble Mine project has more potential for adverse impact than the drilling proposal. Primarily a copper and gold mine, the massive project could irreparably harm the fragile Bristol Bay ecosystem, which explains why local and national conservation and fishing organizations are vigorously opposing the project.

Senator Obama is wisely not pretending to be an outdoorsman beyond, as he recently told Field and Stream, enjoying hiking. In doing so, he can avoid the perception of inauthenticity that has dogged other candidates. Instead, Obama is trying to make sure hunters and anglers know that he understands their concerns and cares about the environmental and land access issues that are vital to their sports. He is supporting expanded hunter education programs and provisions of the recent farm bill intended to put more land in conservation use.

This is essentially the same strategy that former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner employed successfully when "Sportsmen for Warner" efforts across the commonwealth helped him close traditional Democratic gaps with hook and bullet voters in 2001. Now, however, with Palin on the McCain ticket, Obama must do more to clearly show Cabela's voters that although he's not one of them, he understands their concerns and their hopes and will be a friend in office on the issues that matter.

Even in this economy, how much of the Cabela's vote a guy from Chicago can earn remains to be seen. But the answer will affect the outcome in the states upon which the election hinges. Although the idea of hunting, or even fishing, can seem alien in the blue enclaves where Obama is strongest, he cannot afford to write these voters off. In 2007, Cabela's did $2.3 billion in revenue. That was a billion more than fleece-laden REI and about 30 percent more than venerable L.L. Bean. So, whether or not you've heard of Cabela's is irrelevant. Those numbers underscore the political power of those who have.

Andrew J. Rotherham is cofounder and codirector of the think tank Education Sector and writes the blog Eduwonk.com. Rotherham has advised the Obama campaign on education policy but not about the issues this column discusses.