This post has been updated.
OMAHA, Neb. — Late last Thursday, hours after Mitt Romney had wrapped up a large rally and one of the most successful fundraisers in Nebraska history, Gary Wilwerding was camped out with about a dozen others inside a small office in a strip mall here that was buzzing with activity.
As he has done for six to eight hours most weeks, Wilwerding, a 64-year-old retiree, was working to train other volunteers and help piece together data gathered from neighborhood canvassing and phonebanking.
His objective: To defend the dot.
The “dot” would be the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, an area that then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) narrowly won four years ago despite losing Nebraska’s statewide vote to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by a 15-percentage-point margin.
That win wasn’t for naught: Nebraska, along with Maine, is one of only two states in the country that award a portion of their electoral college votes by congressional district, meaning that Obama came away from deep-red Nebraska with one of the state’s five electoral college votes.
Six months out from November 2012, the Obama camp believes that in a close race, Omaha’s single vote could make all the difference. And volunteers like Wilwerding — a self-described independent who has supported Republicans in the past — are working to keep their hold on what has come to be known as “Obamaha.”
“I think nationally, if this one little area has that one electoral vote again, it says something about the people of Nebraska ... that there are people in the Midwest here that are very committed to the ideals of the Democratic Party,” Wilwerding said late last week in an interview at the Obama campaign’s Omaha headquarters. “I would hate people to think that that’s not the way it is. Nebraska’s got an opportunity, and last time, they came through with shining colors.”
The 2008 election marked the first time in history that the Cornhusker State had split its electoral votes since a 1991 law made it one of only two states in the country able to do so.
Sensing opportunity, Obama’s campaign threw its resources into establishing a strong ground game in Omaha, and the effort paid off: Obama won the 2nd Congressional District by a margin of 3,370 votes, besting McCain 50 percent to 49 percent.
That same year, Democrats were less successful downballot: Rep. Lee Terry (R), who represents the 2nd District, narrowly won reelection to a sixth term, besting Democrat Jim Esch by a 10,572-vote margin. The 52-percent victory was Terry’s narrowest win ever. Two years later, in the 2010 midterms, Terry coasted to victory with 61 percent of the vote.
This year, Obama’s campaign opened the doors to its Omaha campaign office in mid-March, an event that drew more than 600 volunteers and to which Democrats point as a signal that Democratic enthusiasm in the district is alive and well. First Lady Michelle Obama also paid a visit to Omaha in late April, another sign that the White House is keeping close tabs on the race.
Republicans argue that while the Obama camp may have its 2008 victory on its side, this time around, the GOP stands poised to seize Omaha’s one electoral college vote back from Obama.
Chris Peterson, a veteran of Nebraska politics who served as manager of Sen. Mike Johanns’ (R-Neb.) 2008 campaign, argued that four years ago, the economic downturn combined with a lackluster McCain campaign to hand Obama a narrow victory in the 2nd District.
“Four years later, the economic shock has subsided, the Omaha economy continues to perform better than the national economy, and the attraction to the hope and change agenda has faded as the reality of Obama’s presidency has manifested itself,” he said. “Omaha’s track record of flirtation with Obama is closer to that of Indiana than Colorado or New Mexico.”
In order to lose the 2nd District, GOP thinking goes, Romney would have to be performing worse than McCain did. A recent survey by Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling suggests that might not be the case: The poll shows Obama and Romney in a statistical dead heat in the 2nd District, and Obama’s approval rating is at 44 percent in the district.
On top of that, the Romney camp is planning on devoting significant time and resources campaigning in conservative western Iowa, which is just across the Missouri River from Omaha.
And Romney has the strong backing of figures such as Nebraska’s popular Republican governor, Dave Heineman, who last week hosted an Omaha fundraiser that netted the presumptive GOP nominee $800,000, a statewide record.
Six months out from Election Day, voter registration statistics show a tight race in the 2nd district, which includes all of Omaha-based Douglas County and part of more-conservative Sarpy County.
Currently, the 2nd District has 150,163 registered Republicans, 138,640 registered Democrats and 83,622 registered “non-partisan” voters, or independents. That gives Republicans an 11,523-vote margin.
The silver lining for the Obama campaign: In 2008, for the first time since 1994, Democrats in Douglas County outnumbered Republicans, thanks largely to the Obama camp’s efforts. That margin still holds today: 123,518 Democrats are registered in Douglas, compared with 122,147 Republicans.
One part of the Obama campaign’s recipe for success last time was the support of newly-registered young voters. And interviews at Romney’s rally at a riverside restaurant last Thursday were illustrative of the environment this time around.
On one side, there was Ellen Frederickson, a 17-year-old Omaha student and self-described conservative who skipped choir and orchestra class in order to attend Romney’s rally with her parents. She said that while she is too young to vote, she would likely cast her ballot for Romney if she were able.
“Among my peers, a lot of my peers are very unimpressed with Obama’s performance,” she said. “So, I think (Romney) does have a strong chance among young people this time around. I think they’re not overly excited about the way Obama’s performing in office.”
On the other side was Chase Ross, a 20-year-old college student from Omaha who attended Romney’s rally together with his father and a friend. Ross said that he’d likely support Obama but was keeping an open mind about Romney.
“I’m leaning Obama, but if he can impress me, I’m not against it,” he said.
At that point, his father cut in.
“I’m his dad. I encouraged him to come for enlightenment,” said Randy Ross, who was sporting a Romney sticker on his shirt. “I trained him well his entire life, and he goes to Yale for a couple of years, and they warped his brain. So, I’m trying to pull his head out of a dark place. I’m trying. It’s pointless, but gotta try.”
Back at Obamaha headquarters, as at the Romney rally, older volunteers mingled with younger ones as they attended a training session led by state director Zack Burgin.
Martha Wight, a 58-year-old retiree who is originally from Oklahoma City, said that Obama’s 2008 campaign was the first one she had ever been involved in. She traveled around canvassing and knocking on doors in Charlotte and Cleveland. And then, when she moved to Omaha last July, she was “just thrilled silly” to discover that Nebraska is one of two states that splits its votes.
Might the election come down to that one electoral vote, a 269-to-269 split?
“I’ve seen several different combinations of, ‘If this state does this, and if that state does that’ — it could be that one could make a difference,” she said. “And boy, I’m doing everything within my power to make sure it does happen.”