10.25.10

Obama's Last-Ditch Strategy

With the GOP riding high, the White House seeks solace in tight Senate races and the undecided vote. Richard Wolffe on Team Obama's final midterm moves—and the wedge issues they'll push next year.

With the GOP riding high, the White House seeks solace in tight Senate races and the undecided vote. Richard Wolffe on Team Obama's final midterm moves—and the wedge issues they'll push next year. Plus, midterm predictions from the Election Oracle.

With one week left before the midterm elections, Obama's senior advisers can now see the contours of a landscape they all concede is vastly different from the one they traversed just two years ago.

But the news, they insist, is not all bad. Despite widespread predictions of a Republican blowout, Obama's team claims that early voting data and the latest polling shows hills as well as valleys. "It's not consistent," said one senior Obama aide. "In places where we have a strong turnout operation, we'll do OK and better than expected. Pennsylvania, Ohio and even Illinois is improving. In other places, where the turnout operation is weak, we're in trouble."

"Many of the House districts," the aide said, as a matter of fact.

Sure enough, in Senate races across the country, the contests have grown closer in these final weeks. In Colorado, the recently appointed Senator Michael Bennet has closed a high single-digit deficit against Republican Ken Buck to turn the race into a technical dead heat. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Joe Sestak has done something similar to cut his deficit against Republican Pat Toomey.

But elsewhere, the trend seems to be running in the other direction. In Obama's home state of Illinois, his friend Alexi Giannoulias is struggling to close a small but consistent gap against Republican Mark Kirk. That race, like so many others, remains well within the polls' margin of error.

Immigration reform “will separate the reasonable Republicans from the pack running for president,” said one senior Obama aide.

So it's no surprise that President Obama's final campaign swing next weekend takes in Philadelphia and Chicago. What's less expected: He's ending his tour in Cleveland, where Democrats hope a strong late showing by Governor Ted Strickland could help tip the balance in a handful of House races in a battleground state that continues to tilt toward the GOP.

In searching for hopeful signs on a bleak horizon, Obama's team also points to surveys showing a huge portion of the voting population that remains undecided. According to a recent Associated Press poll, as many as one third of likely voters are undecided and say they could change their mind. Of those persuadable voters, 45 percent favor Republicans versus 38 percent who favor Democrats. Two years ago, just 14 percent of voters were undecided at this point, according to another Associated Press poll.

Those late deciders could easily break for the GOP, or choose to sit out the midterms altogether, and just stay home. But the large number of undecideds remains a key factor in the volatility of polling—and predicting elections—at this late stage of the 2010 cycle.

Where would that be?

The president's political aides attribute the tightening of many races across the country to the Democrats' efforts to sharpen the contrast with their Tea Party-influenced Republican rivals—and play up the flood of money into GOP coffers from wealthy individuals and corporations.

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"The messaging has been working," said one senior Obama adviser. "It has started over the last couple of months to reenergize Democrats, to present this election as a very clear choice about moving the country forward or taking it back to giving free rein to the special interests, to let them write the rules of the economy that brought it to the brink of disaster.

"You have a weakened Republican brand, a weakened Republican image in this country, where voters don't trust Republicans. Ordinary working voters don't trust Republicans to put their interests ahead of big corporate interests, which are funding their campaigns. They know they have written their own rules and it's the Republicans who have tried to protect the interests of companies like BP, when President Obama required BP to pay every dime of the damage that was done. It was Republicans who voted against financial protection for consumers and against reform of credit-card companies. The American people know that."

The Obama team's hopes have been revived in California—a solidly Democratic state—where their own candidates have been outspent heavily, yet continue to hold slender leads. If the pundits' predictions of a wave election were true, they say, California would be long gone, given the amount of cash spent on TV advertising for Republican candidates.

That leaves Democrats with the limited comfort of arguing on November 3rd that Republicans have fallen short of their own sky-high expectations, even as they gain dozens of seats in the House. "We've got expectations exactly where we want them," said one senior Obama aide.

That may be wishful thinking. Whatever happens on Nov. 2, the White House political team is already busy mapping strategy for the next phase of Obama's presidency.

The White House plans to test Republicans' unity and political resolve on three controversial issues: repealing the Bush tax cuts, implementing the deficit commission's findings, and pushing immigration reform. Obama's team says that these issues will make for good policy—and good politics, forcing Republicans elected in swing districts to choose between placating Democrats and independents and risking a possible Tea Party challenge in 2012.

The White House believes immigration reform may be the toughest test for the GOP—even tougher than tackling the deficit. "This will separate the reasonable Republicans from the pack running for president," said one senior Obama aide.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.