As Goes Omaha …
Could Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District swing the presidential election?
Read the rest of the Swingers series.
OMAHA, Neb.—It's hard to know which is stranger: that the man I'm talking to in a North Omaha Burger King was once Jesse Jackson's campaign manager or that we are discussing a competitive presidential race in Nebraska.
Over breakfast, Preston Love Jr. is explaining to me how North Omaha can carry Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District for Barack Obama. In most states, carrying a single district wouldn't matter. But Nebraska is one of only two states that splits its electoral votes—it has five—by congressional district. (Maine, whose 2nd District may represent a possible pickup for John McCain, is the other.) Obama has no hope of a statewide victory (meaning two at-large electors would go to McCain) and little chance of winning the state's other two districts. But in the last two months, the Obama campaign has signaled its intention to compete in the 2nd Congressional—which includes Omaha and some of its outlying areas—by opening up two offices and hiring 15 paid staffers.
The plan Love describes for picking up that vote—which had been in place since well before the paid staff came to town—is pretty straightforward. First, thousands of new voters in the historically black enclave of North Omaha need to be registered—a task that's already been completed. Next, organizers will work to make sure these voters actually get out and vote—by encouraging early voting, by organizing a massive effort to drive residents to the polls, and by preparing for the likelihood that precincts will be overwhelmed on Election Day. By more than doubling previous records for turnout, North Omaha will provide Obama's margin of victory in the district.
For Love, this election—in which he is also running for a seat on the local utilities board—represents a homecoming of sorts. Love grew up in North Omaha as the son of one of the all-time great jazz saxophonists. He played football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, then left the state to work for IBM. He started working in politics in 1980; four years later, he was running Jackson's 1984 campaign for president. (Two weeks after the campaign started, a more experienced operative came on board.) After a short stint as the Rainbow Coalition's executive director, Love and Jackson fell out, and Love eventually dropped off the political map, became addicted to drugs, and disappeared into Oklahoma. Three years ago, Love came back home to North Omaha, and it wasn't long before he was back into politics—albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
Love had good timing. Voters in Omaha are used to being neglected during presidential elections. After all, their state hasn't been in play for nearly a half-century—casting its electoral votes for a Republican in every election since 1964, when Love was still suiting up for the Huskers. The last Democrat to break 35 percent statewide was Michael Dukakis.
In past elections, when Omahans have turned on their televisions and seen a campaign ad, they've known those messages aren't meant for them. They are targeted at Iowans who live just across the Missouri River. Iowans are a hot commodity in a presidential year, with their all-important caucuses and their nearly even partisan split. At the height of caucus season, the candidates might fly into Omaha—but they usually won't spend any time there, immediately crossing the state line for voters who matter a little bit more.
Nebraska is so deeply Republican that since the state starting splitting its electoral votes in 1992, the Republicans have swept them all—making the provision nothing more than a nice piece of political trivia. And even Omaha is still pretty Republican territory. Bush walked away with the district in 2004, winning 60 percent of the vote. Along with Omaha's Douglas County, which tilts slightly Republican, the district includes part of Sarpy County in the south, where the GOP enjoys a huge advantage. In recent years, Republicans have turned out to vote in higher numbers, and GOP candidates have been able to peel off enough independents and conservative Democrats to win the district comfortably.
Given that history, it's natural to wonder whether Omaha is as competitive as Democrats say. After all, by placing just 15 staffers in Nebraska, renting some office space for a few months, and running TV ads that will get viewed by a good swath of Iowa anyway, the Obama campaign can create the perception that it is broadening the playing field. David Bywater, the executive director of the Douglas County Republican Party, says as much, arguing that Democrats were hoping for a "self-fulfilling prophecy" that would be aided by a local and national media eager to cover a new battleground. (Guilty as charged!) It's also true that, unless Democrats can overturn a traditional GOP advantage in turnout, their persistent—albeit shrinking—deficit in registered voters means they may simply run out of votes.
Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.