CHICAGO — President Obama’s usual acknowledgments of local politicians in attendance for his public events — a regular part of his stump speech — went a little longer than usual when he came back to his old neighborhood on Saturday night for a get-out-the-vote rally.
He even gave his alderman a shout out before diving into the meat-and-potatoes of his message. And he choked up at the end of his address as he paid tribute to a local pastor who had died earlier this month.
“It’s good to be home,” Obama told the hometown crowd that gathered for a rally just a short walk from his family’s house on the city’s South Side.
But for Obama, Saturday night’s rally was about more than a homecoming. It’s also about saving face, as the historically Blue state of Illinois is in danger of turning Purple.
Gov. Pat Quinn is in danger of losing the governor’s mansion to Republican state Sen. Bill Brady. Four Congressional Democratic incumbents are in close races or are down in the polls. And Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic state treasurer who is trying to win Obama’s old Senate seat, is trailing in most independent polls to Rep. Mark Steven Kirk.
“A loss for Alexi wouldn’t just be embarrassing for the president,” Rep. Danny Davis told National Journal. “I think it would be an embarrassment for all of us who are Democrats in Illinois.”
But for all of Illinois Democrats’ anxiety about the November 2 election, Davis said there are signs that Chicago’s Democratic operation is coming alive in the final days of the election and could help push the Quinn and Giannoulias to victory.
Davis said he’s received more calls than usual in the leadup to a midterm election from Cook County Democratic operatives looking for organizational help. In recent days, he’s received requests for help finding sound systems for last-minute rallies and been asked if his office knows of any underused volunteers that may be available for canvassing. Other Illinois party leaders are seeing similar signs of their base coming alive.
“If we can get our ground game going over the next few days, I think Alexi is going to be alright,” Davis said of the Senate race. “Our operation is not as effective as it used to be, but there are still remnants of it.”
Obama was back in Chicago just three weeks ago for a quick trip to raise $750,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Giannoulias.
But Saturday’s trip was much different. Thousands of supporters filled the Midway Plaisance —the South Side park that sits in the shadow of the University of Chicago and just a short walk from the Obama family’s home in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
The last time Obama held a big rally in Chicago was on election night 2008, when Obama stepped to the podium to declare victory at a downtown park situated between the city’s skyscrapers and lakefront.
Choosing Hyde Park seemed like a particularly strategic choice. The neighborhood has a large African-American population and a sizeable student population — two groups that the White House and Democrats have decided to target in the weeks ahead of the midterm election in an effort to help stymie huge projected GOP gains in both chambers of Congress.
But White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod insisted there was no great political calculation in choosing the South Side neighborhood for the rally.
“It’s a great setting, and it also happens to be home,” Axelrod said.
Earlier in the day, Obama spoke at a DNC rally at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he challenged students and area residents to knock on 20,000 doors in the days before Tuesday’s vote. He also gave a speech on Saturday afternoon in Bridgeport, Conn.—a working-class city in southern Connecticut with a significant African-American population that sits within a largely wealthy and white Congressional district.
A good turnout in Bridgeport could be particularly helpful to Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat who is in a tough race to hold on to his seat. On Sunday, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden head to Ohio for a rally at Cleveland State University.
Turning out the vote in Chicago’s minority communities offer Giannoulias and Quinn their best chances of pulling out a win, said Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University.
“They need a giant turnout in the African-American community,” Green said of the two candidates at the top of the ballot. “For Obama, this is a state where he can make it personal, and this is a neighborhood where he can make it personal.”