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.
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.
“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.