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Obama's Base Likely to Disappoint Dems

Obama's Base Likely to Disappoint Dems

By David Paul Kuhn - May 17, 2010

Barack Obama won two groups at unprecedented levels in the post-war era -- blacks and youth. This feat carried with it two stark realities for the next contest. Both blocs have a low turnout rate in midterm elections. And both blocs were particularly personally attached to Obama and the change he personified.

Obama's absence from the 2010 ballot was, therefore, always to be a problem for Democrats. But the gravity of that problem has grown with Democrats' larger problems.

Republicans' potential electoral wave has turned a cyclical Democratic dilemma into an existential issue. Next month, the Democratic National Committee will begin a $50 million program to turn out the Obama base in November. The nascent, exceedingly fragile Democratic majority is turning to the least likely heroes to save it.

Young voters capture this Obama-base problem. Obama won a larger share of younger voters than any president since at least the Second World War.

History, however, appears unlikely to repeat itself. About half of voters under age 30 are enthusiastic about voting this year, according to Gallup, compared to about two-thirds of seniors.

Young Republicans are also more likely to vote in 2010 than young Democrats, 41 to 35 percent respectively, according to a Harvard poll earlier this year. The same is true for young adults who disapprove of the president, compared to those who approve.

Only about three in 10 youth told Harvard pollsters that they "definitely will be voting" in the 2010 election. The poll found more than twice that share in 2008. This means youth turnout, at best, appears typical for midterm elections. And that too is a problem for Democrats.

One quarter of young voters typically turn out in midterms. That's about half the rate of all other voters. Compared to presidential contests, midterm turnout generally skews at least 10 percent more toward the over-age-45 crowd.

Democrats' hold on youth has also loosened. Only about half of young voters say they are going to back a Democrat in their House district, according to Gallup. In 2006, Democrats' share was closer to six in 10.

It leaves Democrats' with a hard reality. Their general decline in public standing extends even to their most-favorable demographic groups. Both youth and Hispanics' approval of Obama has declined from roughly the mid 70s to the mid to high 50s, according to Gallup. In 2006, like 2008, Democrats won about two-thirds of Hispanics. Now only 58 percent of Hispanics say they expect to support a Democrat in their district.

This bad Democratic news has one exception, blacks. They continue to approve of the president at near-unanimous levels. But blacks midterm turnout is also traditionally low compared to white and older voters.

Blacks were 13 percent of the vote in 2008. But blacks were only about 10 percent of the vote in midterm election years -- like 1994, 1998 and 2006. And this trend is unlikely to change based upon recent races. This is where Obama's absence from the ballot matters most.

But what if black turnout actually does increase this year? The Democratic majority is vulnerable in the House. But Obama's base, blacks above all, is concentrated in secure Democratic districts. In short, blacks are not big factors in the districts where Democrats need them most.

Democrats' recognize this bleak outlook. Hence their $50 million investment. The get out the vote (GOTV) program is an outgrowth of Democrats' 2008 voter-mobilization behemoth. Democrats are first reconnecting with 2008 volunteers. They hope to get active supporters to begin to regularly meet. Those active supporters will then canvas their area, armed with GPS and voter lists, for likely supporters.

The outreach first got underway in April. In a video message, Obama dryly spoke of "reconnecting" with the "young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 [to] stand together once again."

But Obama's proven unable to reconnect since 2008. His eleventh hour campaign stops, from New Jersey to Massachusetts, did not rally his base to the ballot box.

Obama appears more like a rich man willing, but incapable, of transferring his wealth. Last year, young adults accounted for about one in 10 voters who turned out in New Jersey and Virginia's elections. That was about half their 2008 turnout. Meanwhile, older voters leaned more Republican.

Mobilization campaigns do matter. Obama proved this with the Iowa caucuses in 2008. A record share of youth voted. But that effort concerned one small state and years of investment. Youth turnout soon returned to traditional levels in the primary.

By Election Day, despite all the hype and hundreds of millions spent, the share of first-time voters did not rise from 2004 to 2008. But the youth share of the vote was up 1 point. The black share of the vote was up 2.

To the extent the Obama-base did turn out strongly in 2008, the GOTV operations do not clearly deserve credit. Obama's massive campaign operation, armed with an historic spending advantage, was especially trained on battlegrounds like Colorado, Ohio, Florida and Virginia. Compared to 2004, the youth share of the vote actually ebbed, or remained unchanged, in all but Virginia. Yet while the youth vote rose in Virginia, black turnout did not.

The increase in the Democratic base's turnout was also seen in states Democrats' expected to safely win in 2008 -- Massachusetts, Vermont, California and Oregon. And as safe-blue states, far less cash was invested per capita to persuade and mobilize voters. In fact, of the eight states, California measured the most impressive rise in black turnout.

Fifty million dollars is certainly nothing to sniff at. But Republicans are also investing millions in their base. And polls show their base is more likely to vote and more enthusiastic about voting.

In other words, Democratic dreams for the Obama-base in 2010 appear to be, well, dreamy.

"I am skeptical," said Tuft University's Peter Levine, a top expert on turnout and the youth vote in particular. "But I don't think the die is cast. It remains to be seen whether they get excited and motivate liberals," he noted. "The Obama climate in '08 proved it was possible."

Yet even top-DNC brass now recognize the climate has turned against them. "Look," said one DNC official, "we are all very conscious of the fact that we have an uphill battle, that there are historic winds blowing in our face. But we do feel optimistic."

Two years ago, Democrats' benefitted from a perfect storm of GOP collapse. They also had a candidate uniquely able to tap new voters -- 60 percent of whom were younger and 40 percent of whom were either black or Hispanic.

Today, the Democratic GOTV effort is focused foremost on first-time voters. But the inability to mobilize a new tide of first-time voters in 2008 bodes badly for Democrats in 2010. The political storm now looms leftward and the man who personally inspired his base represents the one Democratic stronghold not on the line.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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