SAINT LOUIS, Missouri (AFP) — When Barack Obama’s campaign bus made a swing through Missouri in July, the unlikeliest of supporters were waiting for him — or rather two of them, holding the banner: “Rednecks for Obama.”
In backing the first African-American nominee of a major party for the US presidency, the pair are on a grassroots mission to bridge a cultural gap in the United States and help usher their preferred candidate into the White House.
Tony Viessman, 74, and Les Spencer, 60, got politically active last year when it occurred to them there must be other lower income, rural, beer-drinking, gun-loving, NASCAR race enthusiasts fed up with business as usual in Washington.
Viessman had a red, white and blue “Rednecks for Obama” banner made, and began causing a stir in Missouri, which has emerged as a key battleground in the run-up to the November 4 presidential election.
“I didn’t expect it would get as much steam and attention as it’s gotten,” Spencer told AFP on the campus of Washington University in Saint Louis, the state’s biggest city and site of last week’s vice-presidential debate.
“We believe in him. He’s the best person for the job,” Viessman, a former state trooper from Rolla, said of Obama, who met the pair briefly on that July day in Union, Missouri.
The candidate bounded off his bus and jogged back towards a roadside crowd to shake hands with the men holding the banner.
“He said ‘This is incredible’,” Spencer recalled.
It’s been an unexpectedly gratifying run, Viessman said.
Rednecks4obama.com claims more than 800,000 online visits. In Denver, Colorado, Viessman and Spencer drew crowds at the Democratic convention, and at Washington University last Thursday they were two of the most popular senior citizens on campus.
“I’m shocked, actually, but excited” that such a demographic would be organizing support for Obama, said student Naia Ferguson, 18, said after hamming it up for pictures behind the banner.
“When most people think ‘redneck,’ they think conservatives, anti-change, even anti-integration,” she said. “But America’s changing, breaking stereotypes.”
A southern comedian, Jeff Foxworthy, defines the stereotype as a “glorious lack of sophistication”.
Philistines or not, he said, most rural southerners are no longer proponents of the Old South’s most abhorrent ideology — racism — and that workaday issues such as the economy are dominating this year’s election.
“We need to build the economy from the bottom up, none of this trickle down business,” Spencer said. “Just because you’re white and southern don’t mean you have to vote Republican.”
To an important degree, however, race is still the elephant in the polling booth, experts say, and according to a recent Stanford University poll, Obama could lose six points on election day due to his color.
Racism “has softened up some, but it’s still there,” Viessman acknowledged from Belmont University, site of Tuesday’s McCain-Obama debate in Nashville, Tennessee.
Despite representing the heartland state of Illinois, and having a more working-class upbringing than his Republican rival John McCain, Obama has struggled to shoot down the impression that he is an arugula-eating elitist.
Surely he alienated many rural voters earlier this year when the Harvard-educated senator told a fundraiser that some blue-collar voters “cling to guns or religion”.
But Viessman, who says he owns a dozen guns, said Obama “ain’t gonna take your guns away.”
The South traditionally votes Republican — victories for southerners Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were exceptions — but with less than a month to election day, four states in or bordering the South are considered toss-ups: Florida, Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia.
Viessman says he’d like to think his grassroots movement could sway enough people in small-town America to make a difference.
“There’s lots of other rednecks for Obama too,” he said. “And the ones that’s not, we’re trying our best to convince them.”