Tailgates a hot spot for political campaigning
Published: Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 03:10
In the midst of a sea of blue-and-gold-clad tailgaters in front of Delaware Stadium, Democrat Chris Coons was explaining his Senate campaign when a woman from the crowd approached carrying a plate of sweets and tapped him on the arm.
"Want some cake?" the woman asked. "I made it."
Such is life when you're campaigning at a Delaware football game.
Campaigning politicians have long been a fixture at Delaware Stadium during election years, almost as familiar a sight as barbecue grills, beer cans and Hens jerseys at tailgates. The crowds of upward of 20,000 people prove too appealing to pass up for many candidates and their supporters, political science professor Jason Mycoff said.
"The best way to get your message out to a lot of people is to show up where there is a lot of people," Mycoff said. "Delaware football games are famous for attracting lots of people, so it's a great place to go to get your name out."
Name recognition can give candidates a boost at the polls, so campaigning at large events is beneficial, he said.
"It's not like candidates are trying to break up tailgate parties and talk about politics, but it's about getting their name out there," Mycoff said. "And if someone wants to talk, I'm sure they would be willing to."
Coons said he likes campaigning at football games because he can talk to people from a wide range of backgrounds.
"Some just want to say hi, and some of them really take the chance to ask to you questions," he said.
Across the parking lot, Coons' Republican opponent, Christine O'Donnell, flanked by several supporters holding signs, shook hands with tailgaters.
"I love meeting people," O'Donnell said. "I especially appreciate it when I stumble upon someone who is still undecided and I can say, ‘Bring it on. I want to earn your vote. What are you on the fence about?'"
At last week's game, some of O'Donnell's supporters were heckled with calls of "witches," a reference to a comment O'Donnell made several years ago that she once "dabbled in witchcraft." But on Saturday, O'Donnell said most of the people she talked to were respectful.
"More often than not, I win their vote by talking to them and addressing their questions," she said. "Those who aren't supportive are at least polite and just politely say ‘No, thank you' when we offer them material."
Bill Hart, the Republican candidate for New Castle County sheriff, said campaigning at popular events like football games is necessary for candidates running in large races.
"If you're running in a state [representative] race, you're going to have about 3,000 homes in your district, and you're going to be able to knock on every door and attempt to talk to every voter," Hart said. "When you're running county-wide or state-wide, you simply can't campaign in that manner. You have to go where people are assembled in groups."
Hart, who was walking around at the Oct. 9 game wearing his signature cowboy hat—it helps people connect him to the office he is running for, he said—ran into many people he knew through his work with the Rotary Club and other activities in Newark.
"You forgot your horse again, Sheriff," one yelled as Hart walked by.
"Hey, is that Bill ‘The Cowboy' Hart?" another called out.
Since Delaware is such a small state, Hart said, more often than not candidates will come across people who know them—or their opponent.
"On the campaign trail, I've met the neighbors of my opponent, the family members of my opponent," he said. "It's funny, they usually wait to hear what you're going to say about the opposition, then they let you know. Whether they're your supporter or your opponent's supporter, we're all still going to live here together, so campaigning tends to be fairly polite and friendly here in Delaware."
Hart had barely begun making his way through the tailgates when he was approached by a volunteer working for Hart's opponent, Democrat Trinidad Navarro. The man, seemingly unaware of who Hart was, started to hand him campaign literature.
Hart smiled and said, "Hi, I'm Bill Hart, candidate for sheriff."
Most tailgaters said they do not mind putting down their hot dogs and beer for a few moments to talk to a politician.
"It's fine," said Bill Kane, of Bear, Del. "They have to campaign somewhere."
Steve Brockel of Wilmington agreed.
"Where else are you going to meet them?," Brockel said. "I'm guessing the people who come to places like this are the people who vote."
Jeanine Lano, Navarro's campaign manager, said most people are excited to hear from the candidates. Very few seem annoyed, she said.
"Only one person, and they weren't really mad," Lano said. "They just said this is the non-political zone."
Navarro said he even ventures into the Fred Rust Ice Arena parking lot, which is usually filled with students engaged in drinking. Students are still voters, he pointed out, and their reaction varies.
"It's mixed," he said. "It depends on how much beer they've had."
The trick to successful tailgate campaigning, Coons said, is not to interrupt people.
"I tend to just walk through the tailgate crowd and folks who are interested in talking will wave me over," he said. "Folks who really just want to stand out here and have a good time, I don't bother them."
But usually, he said, people are happy to see him and, like the woman who tapped him on the arm, offer to share their tailgate fare.
"One of my biggest challenges while campaigning is not gaining more weight," he joked, taking a big bite of cake. "Wow, that's delicious."