By Philip Ruckerand Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 27, 2010; 2:50 AM
MADISON, WIS. - President Obama will swoop into the heartland this week in a high-stakes bid to boost enthusiasm for Democrats by reigniting the coalition of young and minority voters who were critical to his success two years ago.
With polls showing independent voters swinging toward Republicans in Wisconsin and the nation's other battlegrounds, Democrats are turning elsewhere to make up ground. So on Tuesday in Madison, Obama will stage the first in a series of rallies on college campuses designed to persuade what some call his "surge" voters - the roughly 15 million Americans who voted for the first time in 2008 - to return to the polls this fall.
But without Obama on the ballot this year, his grass-roots network is a shadow of its former self. And with just five weeks before the midterm elections, Obama's political advisers acknowledge that transferring the goodwill he cultivated over a historic presidential bid to an array of other Democrats has proved difficult.
"A lot of these voters feel very strongly about the president, but still a lot of them aren't showing enough predilection to vote," said David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager and an architect of the Democrats' midterm strategy.
When Obama steps onto a grass quad at the University of Wisconsin on Tuesday, he will deliver a newly tailored, more personalized campaign appeal aimed at ginning up enthusiasm, according to White House and senior Democratic officials. Plouffe said Obama will remind students of the work they put into his 2008 campaign and warn them that if they don't reengage now, "all that could be jeopardized."
The students on this leafy, generally liberal campus once constituted one of the strongest battalions in Obama's grass-roots army. Two years later, the political dynamic has changed. Across campus, stickers, signs or chalkings for any politician are scarce. The laundromat where Obama's young volunteers once staged late-night phone banks and planned bus trips to neighboring Iowa has gone out of business. And some students who say they voted for Obama in 2008 now say they don't even know who's on the ballot this fall.
Democrats hope Tuesday's rally could provide a needed jump-start. The event, featuring singer-songwriter Ben Harper, will be simulcast on more than 200 other campuses and be amplified by similar youth-oriented events in other states, featuring surrogates including Vice President Biden. On Monday, Obama will host an on-the-record conference call with college student journalists to tout his administration's record on issues important to young people.
On Saturday, student organizers waved signs outside Camp Randall Stadium as thousands of fans filed out of the football game. The Badgers won in a rout, and the young Democrats tried to break through the excitement of the game with perhaps a more exciting announcement: "President Obama on campus Tuesday!"
Some fans gave thumbs up or yelled "Go, Obama!" Others responded disapprovingly, as in "How's that hope and change working out for you?" Hundreds more walked past in their red-and-white gear without paying any attention.
"A lot of young people are not disenchanted with Obama," said Maggie Bahrmasel, a senior who volunteered for Obama in the Iowa caucuses and now directs campaign outreach for the College Democrats. "I think they just pay attention less."
Another student, Madeline Coyne, 21, said she waited in line to see Obama when he spoke on campus in 2008. Now, she said, "the euphoria has dimmed down."
Still, would she vote on Nov. 2?
"At the midterm elections?" Coyne asked. "Probably not."
This is what the enthusiasm gap that ails Democrats across the country looks like. But party officials are banking on Obama to reengage his 2008 supporters. The Democratic National Committee has made this the keystone of its $50 million midterm strategy, hoping that turning out even a small fraction of Obama surge voters could help swing races in competitive states.Last-ditch effort
In the battleground state of Wisconsin, where 2.18 million voters cast ballots in the last midterm election, there were 667,385 surge voters in 2008. Luring some of them to vote could make the difference for Sen. Russell Feingold (D) and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tom Barrett, both trailing their Republican opponents in recent polls.
"I'm not saying replicating 2008 - that's not going to happen," Plouffe said. "We're not dealing with a fantasy scenario here. We're saying with some small improvement, races where you're losing 52 to 48, you can flip it."
Steve Rosenthal, a longtime labor and Democratic strategist, said several of the most competitive House districts have tens of thousands of surge voters. For Democrats, turning them out is "probably the only route for victory," Rosenthal said. "A lot of the normally persuadable voters, the independents, have abandoned us, and we need to figure out another way to get there. There is a way, and these voters are susceptible to that messaging."
To reach them, Democrats are relying heavily on the grass-roots network Obama created - now called Organizing for America - which has paid staffers in all 50 states who have been engaging volunteers.
"It's an experiment," said DNC Chairman Timothy M. Kaine. "But I feel like what we're seeing from OFA and our canvasses is that we are reaching these voters in greater and greater numbers."
Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, said Democrats are "betting long odds, given the very long history of low turnout in midterms among young voters."
Obama won Wisconsin, 56 percent to 43 percent, over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but his approval rating in the state has fallen over the past two years, mirroring national trends. Obama has made three stops here in two months, most recently a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee. Feingold did not appear with Obama there and will not share the stage at his alma mater Tuesday. Aides said Feingold will be in Washington for votes.A confident GOP
"It's a myth to think Obama is still popular here in Wisconsin," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. "We see independent voters breaking 2 to 1 our way. Wisconsin is a purple state that can turn red under the right circumstances - and this year is the right circumstance."
On the campaign stump, Feingold has been assailing what he calls the "phony enthusiasm gap." He says Democratic enthusiasm is higher than what public polls are capturing, citing the $435,000 his campaign raised in 24 hours this month in what he calls a "cheddar bomb."
"The right is already dancing in the end zone celebrating," Feingold said in an interview. "What they've done by foolishly acting so arrogant and overconfident is that they've basically put out the warning signal, and I am finding that people are very ready to overcome this."
In the weeks since classes began, Organizing for America says it has recruited more than 60 new campus volunteers and identified 16 dorm captains to turn out the student vote. So far, about 800 students have signed pledge cards committing to vote. But that's a far cry from two years ago, when 17,000 students packed the basketball arena to hear Obama exhort, "Let's go change the world!"
Dan Grandone, the group's Wisconsin state director, said it's an unfair comparison. "It's hard to compare apples to oranges," he said. "This is like apples to maybe a vegetable. But we are running the same organizing program we did in 2008. We are organizing community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood."
Kornblut reported from Washington.