Zoila, Liam, and Alena were strangers with a shared goal. They met in Evanston, Illinois, last Saturday for the first time, telling other strangers they encountered as they walked door-to-door, “We’re here for the president.”
Actually, they were encouraging Illinois residents to vote for Democrats in November. But as Liam told Elizabeth Chan, a writer for the Vote 2010 blog, his group decided saying they were there for Barack Obama was a “great ice-breaking” line as they engaged in this partisan canvassing campaign.
These three volunteers joined thousands of others across the country last weekend, kicking off the Democratic Party’s Vote 2010 campaign. The initiative hopes to contact many of the 15 million Americans who registered to vote after 2006, and then cast ballots for the first time in the 2008 election.
Why are these voters so pivotal? First, about 70 percent of them supported Barack Obama. Second, research shows turnout falls off on average of about 20 percent in midterm elections compared to presidential contests; and first time voters are among those most likely not to show up in off-years.
Keeping these “new voters” engaged is a major part of the Democrats’ strategy in congressional contests this November.
Whether it succeeds or not will shape the makeup of Congress for the second half of President Obama’s first term and the content of public policy for the next several years.
Democrats begin with some unprecedented organizational advantages, not the least of which is a critical list of names and other vital voter preference information gathered during the last presidential campaign. This database includes voters who participated for the first time in 2008 and represents a political gold mine for the Democrats. It’s maintained by Organizing for America (OFA), the successor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, now housed at the Democratic National Committee.
Last week, in a preview of the Vote 2010 kickoff, OFA Director Mitch Stewart and Deputy Director Jeremy Bird provided some insights into the group’s effort in an interview with Tom Schaller, writing for FiveThirtyEight.com.
OFA engaged in regular contact with many of these voters in 2008 on behalf of Barack Obama and will now try to mobilize them to help Democrats running for Congress in November. “We are uniquely positioned to reach out and talk to them,” Stewart said. “[N]ot only because of the messenger, and continuing the conversation between first-time voters and the president – but also because these voters got engaged and involved because they really supported the president’s change agenda. And we’re uniquely positioned to reach out and talk to those folks,” he observed.
But can this exercise generate significant support for congressional Democrats in November? Will those who supported Barack Obama nearly two years ago as a post-partisan figure participate in a largely partisan exercise? It’s unclear.
For many of these first time voters Barack Obama promised a new breeze. He was the refreshing zephyr, attracting millions of new participants to the electoral process.
Yet now the political air is filled with that old stodgy smell.
The president’s promise to create new jobs seems impervious to billions of economic pump priming. And as blogger Chris Bowers pointed out last week, unemployment disproportionately impacts the age demographic most supportive of Obama. Not coincidentally, the president’s approval rating has also suffered the most with younger Americans.
The candidate that thrilled environmental activists has responded haltingly to the largest ecological catastrophe in history; the person who promised to govern with a post-partisan style behaves in a hyper-partisan fashion; and the man who motivated millions of progressive and insurgent activists in 2008 now uses old school patronage in Senate races to protect incumbents from challengers many of these same progressive and insurgent activists support.
Kirsten Powers, writing in the New York Post last week, summed up the feelings of many of the president’s supporters, “When I voted for Obama, I voted for him to be president, not for him to use government jobs or perks to drive out qualified challengers in Democratic primaries.”
So the first question those OFA canvassers who are “here for the president” need to ask is: “Are you still with him?” They may get some surprising results.
But there is another challenge. Helping elect congressional Democrats in 2010 to consolidate one party’s control is not the same as supporting Barack Obama in 2008. Some of these strangers walking precincts – especially those who are committed Democrats -- may enjoy the exercise, but to many others they look like coconspirators in a political power grab, transforming hope and change into partisan terms.