By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau
MILWAUKEE — If there is a place in America where President Barack Obama can guarantee a warm welcome, it should be this city’s North Division High School, a polling place for a largely black precinct. In the last two presidential elections, Obama’s two GOP opponents scraped together just eight votes here — between them.
Yet Obama campaigned in the packed school gymnasium Tuesday not to celebrate the power of his electoral legacy but to fight a weakness. The groups the Democratic Party counts on for votes — blacks, young people, women and Latinos — regularly stay home in greater numbers in midterm elections.
When Obama’s name is not on the ballot, turnout here nosedives, as it does in many predominantly black neighborhoods in the U.S., and Democrats suffer.
Obama was dispatched to try to ease that pain and to campaign for Mary Burke, the Democrat trying to oust GOP Gov. Scott Walker. He painted a stark picture of the stakes, playing off black voters’ loyalty.
“Grab your friends, grab your co-workers, grab, you know, the lazy cousin sitting at home who never votes in midterm elections; he’s watching reruns of old Packer games,” Obama said. “Take all of them to cast a ballot and cast a ballot for Mary Burke.”
It’s a message he’s been quietly pushing for weeks on black radio and in community newspapers and digital ads. The White House and Democratic National Committee plan to keep up the focus in the final week with robocalls, mailers and Web ads targeting base voters.
On Tuesday, the DNC released a video showing clips of young people knocking on doors interspersed with snippets of a speech Obama gave to a mostly black audience, exhorting them as well to get friends, relatives and neighbors to cast votes.
“Go out and get your friends to vote. Go out and get your co-workers to vote! Remember, the power is in your hands,” Obama says.
Obama’s reliance on these lower-profile tactics is a sign of his sunken popularity among most other voters. Democratic candidates fighting for Senate seats in North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere could use help juicing up their base but have decided they can’t risk the backlash from independents and swing voters if the president were to widely campaign on their behalf.
That has confined Obama to the deepest blue pockets of deep blue cities. His trip to Wisconsin was the first in a final blitz of rallies in Democratic strongholds. He’s due this week to campaign primarily for governors — a group less vulnerable to Republican attempts to tie them to Obama than Senate candidates are — in Portland, Maine; Philadelphia; and Detroit.
Wisconsin offers a clear picture of what is considered safe territory for the battered president. Obama won the state solidly twice. Although his approval rating in the state has fallen from its 2012 re-election high of 53 percent to an average in the low to mid-40s, it has typically floated just above his national rating, said Charles Franklin, a pollster for the Marquette University Law School poll.
“The key thing is, he’s not campaigning throughout the state. He’s coming to Milwaukee, the single largest bastion of Democrats in the state, and he’s going to a ward that votes 99 percent for him,” Franklin said. “Rather than a show of strength, it’s a show of how constrained his ability to help campaigns is right now.”
Obama’s appearances are an opportunity for Republicans too — to implore their own loyal voters to cast ballots, and to raise money. Walker emailed supporters hours ahead of Obama’s arrival asking for donations “so we can turn Mary Burke’s publicity stunt against her.”
The state also neatly demonstrates the party’s midterm woes. Democrats running statewide rely on running up the score in the major cities of Milwaukee and Madison to offset losses in suburbs and rural parts of the state. But in Milwaukee, where Obama won 79 percent of the vote two years ago, Democratic voters disappeared in 2010. In 2008, 275,000 people cast ballots in the city. Two years later, that number fell to just 187,000. In 2010, 62 percent of registered voters showed up. In 2012, it was 87 percent.
Republicans typically see turnout fall about 10 percent to 20 percent statewide, Franklin noted.
Democrats have been working to replicate the Obama turnout machine — without Obama — in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina with a months-long voter registration campaign and an early-voting push aimed at black voters.
Polling has shown blacks remain Obama’s most loyal bloc of supporters. His approval rating among black voters has consistently been about 40 percentage points higher than the national average, according to the Gallup poll.
It’s not surprising, then, that Obama’s message has appealed to this allegiance. A DNC ad running in black newspapers, including the Milwaukee Community Journal, tells voters, “Get his back — Republicans have made it clear that they want our president — Barack Obama — to fail. If you don’t vote this November 4, they win.”
Tuesday’s election, Obama said, is “a choice about two different visions for America and it boils down to … who’s going to fight for you?”
Obama was briefly interrupted by a protester objecting to his policy on deporting immigrants who entered this country illegally. The president told the crowd the woman should aim her frustration at Republicans who have blocked immigration reform in Congress.
Obama and Burke focused their pitch on the economy. Burke promised “a fair shot” for the middle class and more jobs. “Too many folks work harder than ever and actually have less to show for it,” she said.
Wisconsin lags the nation in job growth, Obama said. “You have a chance to change that.”
Demetrious Lewis, a 52-year-old special education assistant at a middle school, said she’s focused on ousting Walker because she thinks he hasn’t done enough to create jobs in her community.
“We need some changes,” she said as she waited to hear Obama speak. “Things aren’t going good for a lot of people in the neighborhood — jobs-wise.
“We need some changes,” she repeated.
Although Lewis said she’s certain to vote, she noted the excitement in the gymnasium was not matched in the neighborhood outside.
“Compared to the crowd in here, I don’t know,” she said, trailing off. “I hope everyone is going to get out there. I hope.”
AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski
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