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Democratic Party encounters 'Obama Hangover' in state, local elections

The president hits the campaign trail on behalf of Democrats, but the electricity of 2008 is tough to recapture.

October 25, 2009|Peter Nicholas

KENNETT SQUARE, PA. — As he is quick to point out, President Obama is presiding over two wars, a sour economy and an epic fight to rework the nation's healthcare system.

Now tack on a trio of state and local political races. With an off-year election fast approaching, Obama is stepping up his commitment to Democratic candidates in hopes that an infusion of campaign charisma might pump up turnout.

What the party is finding, though, is that the electricity of 2008 is tough to recapture.

Some Democratic candidates running for local office around the country call the phenomenon the "Obama hangover." It is proving tougher to recruit volunteers and get people to vote.

"It's like the morning after the party," Michael McGann, a Democrat running for clerk of courts in the Philadelphia suburbs, said in an interview. "The party was wonderful and exciting. The day after it's like, 'Gee, I don't want to do that again for a while.' "

Combating the malaise, Obama is trying to galvanize voters by reminding them of the "fired up, ready to go" fervor that made last year's race riveting political theater.

A television ad for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds released Wednesday showcases Obama, who is heard using some of the same rhetorical lines that helped get him elected: "Last year, Virginia, you helped lead a movement. . . . I need every one of you to get fired up once again."

Are voters buying it? Obama's party has a hard sell.

Apart from Virginia, Democratic candidates are trying to scratch out victories in the New Jersey governor's race and in a congressional race in upstate New York's 23rd District.

In New Jersey, the election is in some measure a referendum on the Democratic incumbent, Jon Corzine, who has been in office nearly four years. Local issues loom large in New Jersey. A recent poll by Monmouth University showed that people see property taxes as the dominant issue, trumping the economy and healthcare.

Asked whether a campaign appearance by Obama on behalf of Corzine would affect their vote, 73% said no.

Conditions look even tougher for Democrats in Virginia. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling showed Deeds trailing Republican Bob McDonnell by 12 points.

Obama's approval rating among white Virginia voters has slipped 3 points since the 2008 election, and, compounding the problem, black voters are not as excited about Deeds as they were about Obama, said Ron Faucheux, president of Clarus Research Group, a polling firm.

Worse for the Democrats, if any one constituency is energized this season it's conservatives, who are angry about rising deficits, some pollsters said.

"There's real anger on the right, and that anger isn't matched by enthusiasm on the left," said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. "So the emotion is on the side of the far right. And voting has become very emotional."

A clean sweep by Democrats looks unattainable. So for Obama, the question is how much to invest in what could turn out to be losing candidacies.

Aware of the risks, Obama's political advisors have privately discussed just how much of a time commitment he should make. Too much involvement could distract the White House from its chief immediate goals: passing a healthcare bill and devising a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. But at the same time, Obama has decided not to sit it out.

"There's a balancing act here where they're trying to make sure they're responsive to the needs and wants of the campaigns, and at the same time recognize the limits of their usefulness," said Jim Margolis, who was a senior advisor to Obama's presidential campaign. "If I were advising him, I would advise him not to set up campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia as we're trying to get healthcare done and with all these major initiatives."

Obama looks to be picking his spots. In between strategy meetings on Afghanistan, the president is headlining rallies and fundraising events, cutting television ads and lending his name to campaign mailings.

Obama helped raise money Tuesday for Bill Owens, the Democrat running for the congressional seat in New York. A day later, he spoke to 3,500 people at a rally in New Jersey for Corzine.

An awkward dance has played out between Deeds and the White House. At times Deeds seemed to be tracking Obama's softening approval ratings. Given the chance to proclaim himself an "Obama Democrat" at a debate last month, Deeds took a pass.

Senior White House aides, for their part, said they were put off by the Deeds campaign and how it refused early offers of help.

Obama hasn't blanketed Virginia on Deeds' behalf, but he is targeting two important loyal constituencies: black and younger voters. He will appear at a Tuesday rally at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, a city whose population is 44% black, more than twice the representation statewide.

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