Can Obama Deliver Votes in 2014?

Despite his unpopularity, the president might still be useful to at-risk Democrats in some states.

US President Barack Obama walks to the podium to speak on the Affordable Care Act at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2014. Obama cheered seven million people who signed up for insurance under his health care law, and lashed out at political foes who he said were bent on denying care to Americans. 
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
April 29, 2014, 3:46 p.m.

“He’s the prob­lem,” a strategist said. “He should stay away.”

The strategist, in this case, was a Re­pub­lic­an and the year was 2006, when George W. Bush’s ap­prov­al rat­ing had sagged so low that few GOP can­did­ates on the midterm bal­lot wanted to be in the same area code. But it could just as eas­ily be Demo­crats talk­ing about Pres­id­ent Obama today.

Two polls this week gave fresh ache to what strategists have been feel­ing in their guts for some time: that Obama’s tum­bling marks are drag­ging down hopes of re­tain­ing Sen­ate con­trol and re­claim­ing ter­rit­ory in the House.

The num­bers — from the All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or and ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post polls — have giv­en fresh ur­gency to a ques­tion that has been haunt­ing the White House and the Demo­crat­ic Party for weeks: What do you do with a pres­id­ent who’s be­ing aban­doned by voters — par­tic­u­larly in­de­pend­ents — in droves?

Un­like four years ago, when Obama was fre­quently cri­ti­cized for be­ing dis­en­gaged as is­sues sur­round­ing his eco­nom­ic and le­gis­lat­ive agenda were get­ting Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates pummeled, the White House has signaled that it will take a more act­ive ap­proach this time, with a re­vamped in­tern­al polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion. The pres­id­ent has made it sound like he doesn’t want to sit on the side­lines, telling a crowd at a fun­draiser last month that Demo­crats paid “a dear price” for be­ing “sleepy” in the 2010 midterms.

But even if Air Force One is fueled up and ready to go, what’s the flight plan?

At the very least, the pres­id­ent is ex­pec­ted to con­tin­ue rais­ing money na­tion­wide, a task at which he con­tin­ues to ex­cel — and which is all the more ur­gent giv­en the re­cent Su­preme Court rul­ing in Mc­Cutcheon v. FEC that made wealthy donors more pivotal than ever. Demo­crats say that’s the single most crit­ic­al way he can make a dif­fer­ence, both to help can­did­ates counter at­tacks from third-party groups and fin­ance GOTV op­er­a­tions.

But bey­ond that, there are ways in which Obama’s role could be dif­fer­ent than Bush’s eight years ago. Then, Bush largely cam­paigned in friendly states such as Texas and Geor­gia and avoided battle­grounds. Obama may not be so con­strained. He may be the only fig­ure, strategists say, who can drive those to vote who would oth­er­wise stay home.

“He can turn out the cas­u­al voters,” says Steve Murphy, a Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant in Vir­gin­ia. “Turnout is our chal­lenge.”

Demo­crats need the so-called “co­ali­tion of the as­cend­ant” — minor­it­ies, young people, and up­scale wo­men — to be con­vinced to vote in midterms the way they come out in pres­id­en­tial years. That means the pres­id­ent could play a role in states where some might think he should stay away, such as in North Car­o­lina where fresh­man Sen. Kay Hagan is viewed as vul­ner­able and where Obama has a neg­at­ive ap­prov­al rat­ing. “Obama can be a huge plus in Raleigh, Durham, Char­lotte, even Greens­boro,” says Mor­gan Jack­son, a Demo­crat­ic strategist in the state.

Hagan was elec­ted to the Sen­ate on the strength of the Obama wave in 2008 — and some vestige of that may be her best hope to re­turn. “If she is suc­cess­ful,” Jack­son says, “it’s be­cause these folks have turned out.”

Much was made of Hagan’s de­cision earli­er this year to stay away from an Obama event in Raleigh, but Jack­son dis­misses the idea that Obama’s pres­ence would be tox­ic to her chances. “Obama’s already been in every ad that’s been used against Hagan,” he says. “You’re get­ting all the bad already. You might as well get the good.”

Obama could play a sim­il­ar role in Vir­gin­ia in ef­forts to but­tress Sen. Mark Warner’s cam­paign, strategists say, as well as in Michigan, where he still en­joys re­l­at­ive pop­ular­ity. Obama re­cently cri­ti­cized GOP Sen­ate can­did­ate Terri Lynn Land at a fun­drais­ing event, show­ing that the race is on his radar.

In Col­or­ado, where Sen. Mark Ud­all faces a tough chal­lenge from Rep. Cory Gard­ner, Obama could be a crit­ic­al in de­liv­er­ing voters in a place that typ­ic­ally sees a 15 per­cent drop-off in Demo­crat­ic turnout from the pres­id­en­tial cycle. “Sub­urb­an wo­men love him,” says Ted Trimpa, a Den­ver-based strategist.

But there may be lim­its to where the pres­id­ent can go and what he can do. “I think the South is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter,” Murphy says.

Sen. Mark Pry­or, in a tight battle in Arkan­sas, is look­ing for help from the former pres­id­ent, not the cur­rent one. For Pry­or, “it’s give me Bill Clin­ton or give me death,” cracks Ford O’Con­nell, a Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant.

O’Con­nell says Obama should let Clin­ton do much of the heavy lift­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the South, as the ex-pres­id­ent gath­ers chits for a po­ten­tial Hil­lary Clin­ton run in 2016. “He’s seen as more re­spec­ted,” O’Con­nell says.

Clin­ton will head­line a Demo­crat­ic din­ner in Flor­ida in June as the party goes all-in to try and help former Gov. Charlie Crist un­seat Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Rick Scott. But it’s pos­sible Obama could play in the state; he’s still pop­u­lar in South Flor­ida, and two South Flor­ida Demo­crats, Reps. Patrick Murphy and Joe Gar­cia, face tough races.

A di­ci­er ques­tion in­volves Louisi­ana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu has taken pains to keep dis­tance from the pres­id­ent, sug­gest­ing tweaks to the Af­ford­able Care Act and cri­ti­ciz­ing his en­ergy policy. Landrieu polls bet­ter than Obama, and the think­ing is that it’s bet­ter for her if he stays off stage. Last month, Louisi­ana nat­ive James Carville, the former Clin­ton ad­viser, told Fox News’ Bill O’Re­illy that he wouldn’t ad­vise Landrieu to bring Obama for help.

But un­der Louisi­ana’s un­usu­al sys­tem, if she fails to se­cure 50 per­cent of the vote in Novem­ber, she’ll face a run­off with her Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent. In that scen­ario, the think­ing goes, it’s pos­sible Obama could be an as­set to drive Afric­an-Amer­ic­an turnout in New Or­leans and else­where.

The think­ing, too, is that Obama stays away from New Hamp­shire — un­less former GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s can­did­acy catches fire and threatens Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. Montana and South Dakota, both states with vul­ner­able Demo­crats, fig­ure to be non­starters for the pres­id­ent.

The most ag­gress­ive move, strategists say, would be to send Obama to At­lanta in an ef­fort to get out the black vote for Michelle Nunn, the Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ate in Geor­gia, or even to Louis­ville, to try and bol­ster Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes against Sen. Mitch Mc­Con­nell.

But those moves carry great risk, says O’Con­nell, the Re­pub­lic­an strategist, by po­ten­tially gal­van­iz­ing Re­pub­lic­ans and drag­ging down two can­did­ates who have taken pains to paint them­selves as Wash­ing­ton out­siders. Obama to Ken­tucky, he says, would el­ev­ate Mc­Con­nell and al­low him to boast that it took a pres­id­ent to try and stop him. And should Mc­Con­nell be­come the lead­er of a new Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate, that’s something this pres­id­ent would nev­er live down.

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