Omaha’s 2nd District still swinging


September 22nd, 2011

Lincoln, NE – In 2008, Barack Obama surprised many people by carrying the Omaha-area Second Congressional District of Nebraska. Under the state’s unusual law, that gave the Democrat an electoral vote from this otherwise heavily Republican state.

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As the 2012 campaign approaches, the Second District could once again be an indicator of the president’s prospects.

Before the 2008 election, the last time the Democrats got any electoral votes from Nebraska was in Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Nebraska was, in the parlance of election night television maps, a reliably “red,” that is to say, Republican state.

In 2008, Republican John McCain won 57 percent of the state’s vote. But in the Omaha-area Second Congressional district, Democrat Barack Obama outpolled McCain by one percent.

Nebraska is one of only two states, along with Maine, that gives an electoral vote to whoever wins each congressional district, so Obama got one of the state’s five votes.

“Normally from North Dakota to Texas, you have a very strong red line that is created there when they draw the presidential map,” said Jim Rogers, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “And then all of a sudden in 2008, there was a little blue dot on there.”

That “little blue dot” was the Second Congressional District. Dave Boomer has a particular interest in that district, as campaign manager for its Republican congressman, Lee Terry. Boomer says Obama would have won the district in 2008 even if this year’s redistricting, which added several thousand voters to the Republican’s registration advantage, had been in effect. “It’s a swing district,” Boomer said. “And to win the district you need to be able to appeal to a wide swath of voters.”

In 2008, Terry won reelection despite the Obama tide, due partly to people who voted Republican for Congress but Democratic for president. Coffee shop manager Melanee Wilhelm of Omaha is one such voter. “I believe you have to vote for the people who are going to do the job, not necessarily vote your party line,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm says she’s a former Republican who became a Democrat in the 1990s and voted for Obama in 2008.

In 2008, Omaha became a "little blue dot" on the electoral map. (Image by NET News)

“I thought he would do the job that our country needed which was to change things, maybe to help our economy I think that he’s doing the best that he can with what he’s been dealt with. Which is why I’ll vote for him again,” she said.

Obama also benefitted from increased turnout and enthusiasm among minority voters in heavily Hispanic South Omaha and African-American north Omaha. Longtime civil rights activist Archie Godfrey says it was exciting.

“It was a culmination of my life’s work. I’m 67. When I got involved I was 18,” Godfrey said. To see Obama elected after being engaged in the Civil Rights movement all that time was “a dream come true,” he added.

But enthusiasm for Obama among minority voters was hardly the only explanation for his win.

The Second District encompasses Douglas County, which includes the city of Omaha and many suburban areas. It also includes parts of Sarpy County, with suburban and rural areas.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps said the Obama tide wasn’t limited to inner-city neighborhoods. There were increases in voter turnout in north Omaha and south Omaha, as well as a small increase in young people voting, Phipps said. But the increase wasn’t really that big.

So why did Obama win the Second District? “Frankly I think what we’ve seen is more kind of the suburban Democrats, and some of those suburban Republicans and nonpartisans voting for Obama,” Phipps said.

One such nonpartisan voter is Alan Parsow, an investor from the former suburb of Elkhorn, now part of Omaha. Parsow said he’s probably voted for more Republicans than Democrats over the years. But in 2008, he says, he voted for Obama. “I felt that America needed change, but more than that I was extremely disappointed also in the decision-making process John McCain had with regard to his picking Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate,” he explained.

But Parsow said he’s disappointed in Obama’s performance, in not immediately embracing the recommendation of his own deficit reduction commission.

“I would say that he is at the very lowest end of any expectations I’ve had and has been a major disappointment, mostly on his lack of leadership skills and his lack of what I perceive is economic knowledge,’ said Parsow.

Parsow says he doesn’t know who he’ll support next year, but it won’t be Obama. If enough independent voters share that view, or if diminished enthusiasm holds down Democratic voter turnout, that will hurt Obama’s chances in 2012. But Republican campaign manager Boomer won’t predict whether or not the GOP will retake the Second District’s electoral vote.

“I just hesitate to say what might happen. It’s well over a year away. I think we’ll have to see the race settle down and compare apples to apples – President Obama to the Republican nominee for President,” he said.

Jim Rogers of the Nebraska Democrats predicted African Americans and Latinos, angered by what they perceive as Republican disrespect for the president, will again turn out in high numbers. He’s not necessarily anticipating 15 paid staffers like the Obama campaign had in the district in 2008.

“I don’t know if I could anticipate it,” he said with a laugh. “I would be hopeful.

“But I think we’re going to see a tremendous volunteer effort, driven in part by those individuals that want to see the president’s vision through, and are going to get out there and do the work that needs to be done,” Rogers said.

Rogers also said turnout could be increased by what’s expected to be one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the nation, as Democrat Ben Nelson seeks reelection against Republicans critical of his support for Obama on health care.

In “The Audacity to Win,” his book about the 2008 election, Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe called the Second District “my personal favorite target.” He describes talking to the candidate about a plausible scenario in which its one electoral vote would provide the margin of victory. He then quotes Obama calling that “interesting daydreaming,” but adding with a laugh, “Let’s try not to have it all come down to Nebraska 2.”

Nevertheless, the way this district votes next year may say a lot about how the election goes nationally.

This story is produced in partnership with Need to Know on PBS. Need to Know is made possible by Bernard and Irene Schwartz, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation, The NASDAQ OMX Educational Foundation, James and Merryl Tisch, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Josh and Judy Weston, The Winston Foundation, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS. Corporate funding is provided by Mutual of America.

One Response

  1. toto says:

    To bring you up to date:

    The leadership committee of the Nebraska Republican Party just adopted a resolution requiring all GOP elected officials to favor overturning their district method for awarding electoral votes or lose the party’s support.

    While in Pennsylvania, Republican legislators insist we must change from the winner-take-all method to the district method.

    And up in Maine, the only other state beside Nebraska to use the district method, Republicans, also newly in the majority like their counterparts in Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, Republican leaders in Maine proposed and passed a constitutional amendment that, if passed at referendum, will require a 2/3rds vote in all future redistricting decisions. Now they want to pass a majority-only plan to make redistricting in their favor even easier.

    & & & &

    A survey of 977 Nebraska voters conducted on January 26–27, 2011, showed 67% overall support for a national popular vote for President.

    In a second question presenting a three-way choice among various methods of awarding Nebraska’s electoral votes,

    16% favored the statewide winner-take-all system (i.e., awarding all five of Nebraska’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes statewide);
    27% favored Nebraska’s current system of awarding electoral votes by congressional district; and
    57% favored a national popular vote.
    In a third question, 39% of voters think that changing the method by which Nebraska awards its electoral votes should be a high priority for the Nebraska Legislature in 2011, while 61% said that it should not.

    The first question was: “How do you think we should elect the President: Should it be the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states, or the current Electoral College system?”

    On the first question, support for a national popular vote, by political affiliation was 78% among Democrats, 62% among Republicans, and 63% among others. By congressional district, support for a national popular vote was 65% in the First congressional district, 66% in the Second district (which voted for Obama in 2008); and 72% in the Third District. By gender, support for a national popular vote was 76% among women and 59% among men. By age, support for a national popular vote, 73% among 18–29 year-olds, 67% among 30–45 year-olds, 65% among 46–65 year-olds, and 69% among those older than 65. By race, support for a national popular vote was 68% among whites and 63% among others.

    The second question was: “Do you prefer a system where the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states on a nationwide basis is elected President, or one like in Nebraska where electoral voters are dispensed by Congressional district, or one in which all of Nebraska’s electoral votes would be given to the statewide winner?”

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