Sportsmen and women love October. Hunting season is underway and, with winter coming, the fishing is often the best of the year. October is also the busiest month of the political year and, in a close presidential contest, campaign season and hunting season share more than the calendar. With the election turning on states like Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain will be hunting hard for support among hook and bullet voters. For Obama, making inroads with this group is one key to victory in November.
The best proxy and gathering place for fishermen and hunters is Cabela's, the outdoor gear supplier with 28 superstores coupled with a more than $1 billion Internet and catalog business. More than a retailer, Cabela's is a cultural barometer. As NBC's Brian Williams has pointed out, whether you've even heard of Cabela's says a lot about your lifestyle. The retailer is foreign to the millions of Americans who rarely venture farther outdoors than a city park, but a favorite of sportsmen who do. In most of this year's pivotal states, there is a warehouse-size Cabela's store, whether on the West Virginia-Ohio border, or in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin (which has two), or Minnesota (has three!).
For years, the sportsman's vote was assumed to be mostly impenetrable for Democrats because of cultural issues and the volatility of the gun issue. Yet the political terrain has shifted during the last eight years, putting the "Cabela's vote" more in play. Ironically, it's the Bush administration and the gun lobby that Democrats can thank for the opportunity.
Sportsmen have become increasingly dissatisfied with the Bush administration's corporate-friendly environmental policies, and hook and bullet organizations are increasingly working with environmental groups. For instance, more than 400 environmental, angling, and hunting organizations opposed a 2004 administration mercury proposal, and the concerns of waterfowl hunters helped derail some proposed changes to wetland rules.
At the same time, the gun issue is losing its potency. Sure, the National Rifle Association is running television ads implying that Obama wants to take away hunting guns, but that attack is weakened by the recent success of the gun lobby at the Supreme Court. In June, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment guarantees a private right to bear arms—a decision Obama promptly embraced. Such a backdrop makes the scare tactics less likely to stick.
That's good news for conservation because the emphasis on the gun issue creates lousy politics for hunters and anglers. In 2004, Field and Stream columnist George Reiger pointed out that the gun lobby's almost exclusive focus on the Second Amendment meant that hunters could "end up with a closet full of guns with no place but a shooting range to use them."
Today's hunters and anglers face problems that have little to do with gun control and a lot to do with clean air and water, access to land to hunt and fish, and challenges like global warming. These issues can help reshape traditional political alignments. A July poll commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation found that while hunters and anglers are more likely to be conservatives or independents, they're open to being courted by both parties on outdoor issues they care about besides guns.
About firearms specifically, the poll found that barely more than 1 in 3 sportsmen believed that gun rights were the most important issue facing hunters, while 2 in 5 hunters and 47 percent of sportsmen who hunt and fish believed that conservation is as important an issue as gun rights. Senator Obama is unlikely to win these voters decisively, but those numbers indicate an opportunity to compete for some votes.
Of course, that poll was commissioned before Senator McCain named America's most famous moose hunter as his running mate. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will undoubtedly appeal to many anglers and hunters because she's really a sportsman, not a posing pol. An AP/Yahoo poll after her nomination found that 2 in 5 gun owners said her selection made them more likely to support the Republican ticket. Yet Palin seems a better bet to succeed in the field or on a river than in public office advancing the interests of Cabela's voters.
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.