The 2012 presidential campaign is still far off on the horizon. But it’s not too early for once and future GOP contender Mitt Romney to go to work on his perceived shortcomings. The former Massachusetts governor is a savvy money man—the former CEO of a private equity firm—operating in a political climate increasingly hostile to Wall Street and big banks. So what’s a man looking to show off his common touch to do? Hit the lanes, of course.
Before attending the much-watched Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicks off in the nation’s capital Thursday, Romney will be the star attraction at a fundraiser at Lucky Strike Lanes in Washington. The event, “Bowling with Mitt,” is being organized by Republican insiders like lawyer Ben Ginsberg. But the image of a guy on the hunt for strikes and spares could help add a dash of populism to Romney’s image—and help make inroads with the blue-collar base of another former Republican governor, this one from Alaska.
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“I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an overlap between the tea bagger and bowling demographic,” says Harvard’s Robert Putnam, who made his name with the 2001 study, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. “Sarah Palin kind of fits that image. Romney may be trying to do a head fake in that direction.”
He might need one. On Dec. 2, the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America announced that Palin would be the keynote speaker at its convention this summer in Las Vegas. Five days later, not to be outdone, the National Ski Areas Association promised that Romney would be their keynote for the industry’s annual tradeshow in May. Steven Johnson, the executive director of the bowling association, said Monday that Romney was not even considered for the gig.
Why did Palin get the nod?
“Her popularity, entertainment value, interest, and even controversy,” Johnson said.
In December, Johnson declared the former vice-presidential candidate “a good friend to the bowling industry.”
Champion pro bowler Parker Bohn praised the decision to invite Palin to the event.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “She seems like a really nice lady and an individual doing the right thing.”
“Seems like the GOP primary could soon shape up as a contest between salt-of-the-earth, bowling-class Republicans, and elite ski-track Republicans,” Joshua Greene wrote for The Atlantic. (The fundraiser’s organizers, Romney’s political action committee Free and Strong America PAC, didn’t return a request for comment.)
While bowling is “the most demographically diverse niche in the world of sports,” according to Putnam, its image may be forever tied to a certain slice of American life—white, middle-aged, Midwestern, the denizens of the Rust Belt, a must-win group for any Oval Office aspirant. For this reason, office-seekers have often braved the possibility of throwing a few gutterballs with hopes of appearing authentically American.
“You are going to touch a lot of people when you go bowling, and you are going to touch the core group of America,” Bohn said.
Mike Walsh, who traveled the country to write Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes said part of the bowling alley’s appeal has been its ability to preserve a sense of good old-fashioned American egalitarianism.
“It’s a place where everyone is equal. If you have to rent a pair of shoes and pick up whatever ball you find there and the guy next to you is doing the same thing, you are starting in the same place,” Walsh said.
But a round of tenpins is not without risk. Candidate Barack Obama’s pitiful performance at an Altoona, Pennsylvania bowling alley in March 2008 had him promising spectators, “My economic plan is better than my bowling.” He rolled a miserable 37 in seven frames—then made matters worse by telling Jay Leno that his bowling was “like the Special Olympics or something.” The White House has said that Obama’s game is improving. Supposedly, he rolled a 144 at the Camp David bowling alley this past August. When Obama said that he would replace the White House bowling alley (first used by Harry Truman) with a basketball court, bowling boosters objected.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an overlap between the tea bagger and bowling demographic,” says Harvard’s Robert Putnam.
“Bowling should not be that tough for him,” Bohn, who is a three-time Professional Bowling Association Play of the Year winner. The 46-year-old left-hander said he’d be happy to teach Obama, also a southpaw, a thing or two on the White House lanes.
“We love the president to bowl and support him,” the BPAA’s Johnson said. It would appear the president is backtracking; Johnson says his group is now working with contractors to refurbish the president’s private lanes.
Obama is not alone in finding the bowling alley tricky terrain. George H. W. Bush, who captained Yale’s baseball team in 1947, took a legendary spill at one bowling alley while campaigning in 1988. At the time, his daughter told Maureen Dowd that the media’s coverage of her father’s fall drove her to tears.
''They kept showing it in slow motion, this spastic-looking fall when he's really such a good athlete,'' Dorothy LeBlond said. ''I called Dad and burst into tears and said, 'How can they do this?'”
Perhaps no American politician is more associated with bowling than Richard Nixon. He was the original lone bowler. Late at night, he would go down to a lane built for him by friend Bebe Rebozo beneath the Executive Office Building.
“For him, there was an obvious political appeal,” said David Greenberg, the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “Nixon always styled himself as the champion of the silent majority, regular ordinary hardworking Americans who didn’t get media attention for their views—not the glamorous or stylish people we heard much about. Bowling obviously fit this image quite nicely.”
Bowling’s image has changed recently. Upscale bowling-cum-night-clubs have sprung up in many cities in recent years. And while more people are bowling today than voted for Obama in 2008—70 million, according to Johnson—the sport is also attracting the kind of folks you wouldn’t likely find at your local Elks lodge.
“Lady Gaga is bowling,” Johnson said. “Everyone is bowling.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.