Which is the more important voting demographic?

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Sept. 4 2008 7:08 PM

Hockey Moms vs. Soccer Moms

Which is the more important voting demographic?

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Hockey moms. Click  image to expand.
A Republican National Convention delegate holds up a "Hockey Moms for Palin" sign

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin proudly described herself as a "hockey mom" in her speech to the Republican National Convention Wednesday night, and the label has been a favorite of both headline writers and her sign-waving fans in St. Paul. (The description is such a part of her identity that a biography published a few months ago was called Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment on Its Ear.) How many other hockey moms are out there?

Probably a few hundred thousand. According to USA Hockey—which has jurisdiction over the vast majority of youth leagues nationwide—there are 347,061 players under the age of 20 registered with the organization across the country. Presumably, most of these players have moms, although since there are some households with multiple hockey players, we can assume that 347,061 is a rather high estimate.

Most hockey moms are located in colder parts of the country: In total, about two-thirds of youth hockey players come from either the Great Lakes states or the Northeast. More detailed demographics on youth hockey players are a little harder to come by, but they're almost certain to be largely Caucasian. Just 2 percent of National Hockey League players are black, despite the work of a "diversity task force" for both the professional and youth leagues. (The task force has held special camps in Wasilla, Alaska.) USA Hockey claims hockey-playing households earn nearly twice the U.S. average, with a median income of $99,200. According to polling by the Pew Research Center, a slice of registered voters that might be roughly equivalent to hockey moms—comprising white married women with kids under 18, incomes over $75,000 and living in the prime hockey-playing regions—tilts Republican by about nine percentage points, albeit in a pretty small sample. That group is somewhat less GOP-friendly today than it was in 2004, but it's still far more Republican than an overall electorate that favors Democrats by 13 percentage points.

How do hockey moms compare with soccer moms? They probably have to pay a good deal more to get their kids on the ice; for example, this Anchorage-based team charges preteen players $1,850 a year in fees. (The cost of equipment can easily add a few hundred dollars more.) They may also have to wake up earlier, too; because ice time is limited, many teams are forced to have practice hours before school starts. Hockey partisans on the Internet—see here, here, and here—also claim that hockey moms are a bit more intense than their soccer counterparts, both in terms of the commitments they make to the sport and the intensity with which they cheer their kids. Partially as a result, USA Hockey has spearheaded a "Relax, It's Just a Game" campaign to try to get parents to calm down. We might assume that soccer moms are a little more diverse than their hockey counterparts; it's hard to identify obvious political differences between the two groups. (As Slate's Jacob Weisberg pointed out in 1996, part of the problem is that the term "soccer mom" has never been defined very clearly—referring variously to struggling middle-class women as well as wealthy McMansion moms.)

In any case, the soccer moms have the hockey moms outnumbered by a wide margin nationwide. U.S. Youth Soccer—which covers a smaller percentage of youth teams than USA Hockey—claims a total membership of more than 3.1 million players. In swing states like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, the figures aren't even close, with anywhere between seven and 20 times as many soccer players as hockey players.

But there are two competitive states where hockey moms may rival soccer moms for political importance: Minnesota and Michigan. Palin should expect a favorable reception to her hockey bona fides in the North Star state, home to 44,500 youth hockey players and one of the nation's largest concentrations of hockey-playing girls. (Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor who was reportedly McCain's second choice, has himself been known to take to the ice.) But Palin's hockey-mom ties run deepest in Michigan: Not only does the state boast 37,004 youth hockey players, but Track Palin spent six months of his senior year living in Portage, Mich., while playing for a midget major hockey team.

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Explainer thanks Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and Dave Fischer of USA Hockey.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.