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Democrats Face Turnout Challenges in Key Districts in 2010

Democratic political strategists know that for all of their party’s advantages next year, they’ll almost certainly have significant turnout issues in more than a half-dozen highly competitive districts — even if President Barack Obama remains popular.

“Last cycle, our challenge was to make certain newly energized Obama voters continue to vote Democratic down the ballot. This time, our challenge is getting those same voters back out to vote again,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Jon Vogel told me recently.

At least nine Democratic-held districts in five different states — Alabama’s 2nd (Rep. Bobby Bright) and 5th (Rep. Parker Griffith), Ohio’s 1st (Rep. Steve Driehaus) and 15th (Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy), North Carolina’s 8th (Rep. Larry Kissell), Virginia’s 2nd (Rep. Glenn Nye) and 5th (Rep. Tom Perriello), and Georgia’s 8th (Rep. Jim Marshall) and 12th (Rep. John Barrow) — could see a steep drop-off in the midterm among demographic groups that were energized by Obama’s candidacy and supported Democratic candidates across the board last cycle.

Eight of the districts have sizable African-American populations, including Ohio’s 1st district, which is more than one-quarter black and includes most of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The other district, Ohio’s 15th, is based in Columbus and includes Ohio State University, a huge source of young voters for the Obama campaign. (Younger voters are also important in Virginia’s 5th, which includes Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.)

African-Americans and college-age students turned out in considerable numbers for Obama, and it is far from clear whether they will do so again in the midterms. In fact, exit polls over the past few elections have shown that turnout for both groups has dropped in nonpresidential years.

For example, African-Americans made up 11 percent of all voters in 2004 and 13 percent of all voters in 2008, but only 10 percent of the 2006 midterm electorate. For younger voters, the drop-off is even more stark. Voters 18-29 years old constituted 18 percent of all voters in 2008 and 17 percent of all voters in 2004. But in the intervening 2006 midterm, they accounted for only 12 percent of all voters.

Along with the drop in turnout is the corresponding, but different, issue of vote choice. While black voters and 18-29-year-olds turned out in bigger numbers last year, they also gave a much greater percentage of their vote to Obama (and presumably to other Democratic candidates).

Without Obama on the ballot to bring out voters or define the overall election by his candidacy, it is uncertain how the two key voting groups will cast their ballots in individual contests. Some of these voters might return to their traditional voting preferences, especially if a number of Republican moderates are on the ballot.

Obviously, one huge question is how personally involved the president will become in the elections.

Obama has shown some limited willingness to play in some House and Senate races. Before his election, he recorded automated telephone calls for the Democratic nominee in last year’s special election in Louisiana’s 4th district and appeared in a TV ad for now-Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). More recently, he has played a role in the New York and Pennsylvania Senate races and headlined fundraisers for Senate candidates. He will do a joint fundraiser for the House and Senate campaign committees later this month.

On the other hand, the president has generally tried to stay above the partisan fray, preferring calls for unity and bipartisanship and avoiding heavily partisan rhetoric.

Democratic campaign strategists acknowledge that while they would be happy to have the president fully engage in the midterms, they cannot assume he will be greatly involved. So, they are planning their own efforts to mobilize Democratic voters.

DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) has already sat down with Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine to discuss how the two committees can coordinate their efforts to turn out Democrats next November.

Party insiders say their efforts will include targeting, messaging and building an infrastructure that will help national Democratic groups help Members’ campaigns to turn out key groups.

While strategists already can identify those districts where a drop-off in voting by African-Americans and younger voters could prove fatal to Democratic incumbents, the DCCC plans for much more elaborate targeting to allow the committee to communicate with those voters.

The DCCC also plans on investing resources into developing and refining its messaging to those voters. With the committee regarding “message” as an integral part of its field program, the DCCC is likely to engage in some extensive message testing to find out the best way to mobilize Obama voters who might otherwise sit out the midterm elections.

“For us,” Vogel says, “the question is what kind of message will get those voters to turn out.”

Finally, the DCCC will work with individual Members’ campaigns to build an infrastructure — and a tailored field campaign — in each district.

The DCCC’s recently hired national field director, Marlon Marshall, will play a key role in building organizations in key districts. Marshall, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) field director during the 2008 Democratic primaries, ran the Obama campaign’s Missouri field operation during the general election.

So far, GOP recruiting in districts that could see a drop in Democratic turnout has been promising. Former Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) is running again, and Steve Stivers, who narrowly lost to Kilroy last time, appears likely to opt for a rematch. Republican candidates against Bright and Barrow appear formidable, at least initially.

The National Republican Congressional Committee will need to win a few of these districts if the party is going to gain seats next year. But their efforts won’t surprise the DCCC, which has already taken concrete steps to minimize any drop in turnout.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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