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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.
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."
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.