In search of the old magic



The Democratic strategy for surviving the '10 midterm elections was spelled out this morning in a new video message starring Barack Obama. It's no mystery what he wants to do - rekindle the '08 magic - though it's debatable whether he can pull it off.

He says he wants to "make sure the same people who were inspired to vote for the first time in 2008 go back to the polls in 2010....This year, we’re going to reconnect with voters like Claudia Schulz. At 29 years old, Claudia had never been involved in the political process because she didn't think one person could make a difference. But in 2008, Claudia joined millions of other supporters like you and made her first-ever trip to the polls."He says "the stakes are higher than ever" in 2010, because the Republicans, if successful in November, stand poised "to undo all that we have accomplished." To thwart a GOP victory, he needs "to make sure that young people, African Americans, Latinos, and women, who powered our victory in 2008, stand together once again," and "make sure that first-time voters in 2008 make their voices heard again in November."

This is a frank admission that the Democrats are in serious trouble with the kinds of voters - older, whiter - who typically show up in disproportionate numbers in midterm elections. Obama is basically saying that Democrats can minimize their losses only if they can somehow bring out the kinds of voters - particularly the young, and people of color - who historically have rarely bothered to show up for the midterms.

This could be a daunting task. Obama was wildly popular among young people and first-time voters; on election day in 2008, he drew roughly 65 percent of the under-30 crowd, and roughly 70 percent of the first-timers. But he's not on the ballot this November, and young people (along with first-timers, an overlapping group) don't feel the same personal connection with their Democratic lawmakers (assuming they can even identify their lawmakers). Nor did those voters show up in significant numbers for the '09 Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia; or for the Democratic senatorial candidate in the Massachusetts special election this past January.

This is why Obama, in the video message currently being emailed to the 13 million names on the Obama grassroots mailing list, is trying to put his own face on the '10 elections, to frame these elections as a choice between sustaining his agenda or allowing the Republicans to obstruct it. In essence, he's trying to stoke his '08 followers by nationalizing the '10 contests, by making it all very personal.

The perils of this strategy are obvious. The idealism and novelty of '08 may be very tough to replicate. Young people and first-timers - many of whom, by definition, are not well schooled in the incremental frustrations of politics; many of whom are registered independents - may well be disappointed by Obama's pace of change. And on the minority front, Latino voters in particular may well be averse to Obama's pitch for '10 participation unless the Democrats speedily fulfill their promise to enact immigration reform (good luck with that one).

The problem is, Obama's Democratic congressional candidates may need maximum help from all those '08 "surge voters," because otherwise this midterm electorate will resemble the typically older and whiter midterm electorates of previous cycles. And this year, the older/whiter/angrier cohort is poised to punish the majority party. Obama wants to put his face on the '10 races in order to re-inspire his surge voters, but the risk is that, by doing so, he'll make himself a bigger target for the traditional off-year voters - particularly the seniors, who always vote heavily in midterms, and who have never liked him in the first place. (In '08, he drew just 45 percent of the voters aged 65 and older.)

The Democrats plan to spend $50 million on this ambitious bid to broaden the midterm electorate - in essence, to find out (in the words of national party chairman Tim Kaine) whether "the magic has evaporated." The White House apparently feels that this strategy is the only way to cut Democratic losses in November; on paper, the Democratic strategists might achieve that goal if they can boost surge-voter turnout by just a few percentage points.

Politically, however, this is a very high-risk move (these days, aren't they all?). If those surge voters ignore Obama's call to arms and opt to stay home in November, a major Democratic defeat will be tantamount to a thumbs-down referendum on Obama himself - because he will have invited it. And his people would be at pains to spin such a defeat any other way.