Could North Omaha swing the presidential election?

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 8 2008 6:33 PM

As Goes Omaha …

Could Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District swing the presidential election?

Read the rest of the Swingers series.

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Still, compared with the rest of Nebraska, the 2nd Congressional District isn't quite so unforgiving for a Democrat. (Granted, that doesn't say much.) For one, it's geographically small, which makes the logistics of campaigning easier. (By comparison, Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District, covering the western three-quarters of the state, is about 65,000 square miles.) As Omaha has grown in recent years, its population has become more diverse and more college-educated. I arrived in town on the day of the River City Roundup rodeo (official tractor dealer: A&M Green Power), but the one-time cattle town's largest employers now include PayPal and the credit card processor FirstData.

And campaign professionals in both parties say they think Obama has a fighting chance. A poll commissioned by Jim Esch, the Democrat hoping to unseat incumbent Rep. Lee Terry, found Obama within four points in early August—before Obama had any staff presence here. (Republicans say they don't find that poll credible, contending their own numbers have them "very optimistic.") A few days after I left, Sarah Palin arrived for an unexpected visit, although she insisted in her speech that she was only in town because she had "asked to come to the heartland of America."

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To win, however, Obama will have to do more than rack up huge margins in North Omaha. Douglas County's political dividing line is 72nd Street, a north-south highway that serves as one of the city's main thoroughfares. West of 72nd, the electorate tilts heavily toward the GOP. East of 72nd are the Democratic strongholds: not just North Omaha, but also a growing Hispanic population to its south. And then there's South Omaha—a neighborhood traditionally dominated by the conservative Catholic Democrats who may be the key swing voters in the 2nd Congressional District.

In 2004, the South Omaha precinct that casts its ballots at the Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church went for George W. Bush by a five-vote margin. * When I visited the parish's fair on a Sunday late last month, the general mood was frustration—along with a bit of bemusement as to why anyone would travel to Nebraska to write about the election. No one was happy with the bailout Congress was set to vote for the next day. (One woman told me her colleagues at work had resolved to write in Omaha's favorite son, Warren Buffett, for president.) Sitting with her adult daughter and a few friends, Pat Smith told me that she is not terribly happy with either Obama or McCain.

But Smith—who voted for Bush for 2004 and described herself as "strongly pro-life"—said she was leaning toward Obama after watching the first debate. "I like Obama and what he's saying," she said. "The middle class has been left out," she explains, and she believes Obama is doing a better job of expressing that.

John Krause, who had a piece of tape reading "NOBAMA" on his shirt and reveled in his role as the parish's conservative standard-bearer, said that while some of the "cafeteria Catholics" in attendance might vote for Obama, many would end up voting for the Republican ticket. "At the end of the day, people are going to say, 'That's not the way we want to live in Nebraska,' " Krause says, running down the list of issues on which he says South Omaha Catholics might favor McCain over Obama: abortion, national security, energy policy.

It may all be irrelevant. For Nebraska's single electoral vote to matter, the rest of the map would have to line up in such a way to give one candidate 269 votes and the other 268. Obama, for example, could win the states Kerry won, plus Iowa, New Mexico, and Nevada. Or McCain could win all the Bush states but cede Iowa and Colorado to Obama. These permutations are exceedingly unlikely, but they could leave Nebraska's 2nd as the district that puts either candidate over the top. After decades of being ignored, it would be quite a way for Nebraska to matter again.

Correction, Oct. 15, 2008: This article originally stated that John Kerry won a South Omaha precinct by five votes in 2004.George W. Bush won the precinct by five votes. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.