On Wis. campus, Obama support bubbles below surface
MADISON, Wis. -- On a chilly afternoon this week, there were few indications across this sprawling campus of more than 42,000 students that Election Day is almost upon us.
Student volunteers at the Wisconsin School of Business called out to passersby, but it was to solicit Red Cross donations for storm relief on the East Coast rather than to promote a candidate.
Bulletin boards around campus were plastered with posters promoting sketch comedy shows, an open-mike night, and jobs to protect the environment, but campaign literature and signs were scarce.
As students in sweatpants and red Wisconsin hoodies toted oversized backpacks in and out of classes, the most pressing topic of conversation was not the latest poll numbers, but rather how they would spend the upcoming Saturday, the season's only open date for the Badgers football team.
At first glance, the apparent dearth of campaign-related activity would be deeply concerning to the re-election hopes of Barack Obama. The president is counting on a robust turnout in this liberal college town to help propel him to victory in a state that increasingly appears critical to both his and Mitt Romney's electoral calculus. (Obama has a five-point lead in the RCP Average.)
But a closer looked revealed activity happening in less visible ways.
Inside the Memorial Union student center, for example, 22-year-old senior Margaret Raimann displayed a small but revelatory "I Voted Today" sticker on her sweatshirt.
Raimann had cast her ballot for Obama on the previous day, but the geography and cartography major continued to wear it proudly as she typed on her laptop.
At the very moment that she was approached by a reporter, Raimann was sharing news with her friends via Facebook and GChat that the president had scheduled a Bruce Springsteen-headlined rally in Madison on Monday.
Responsibilities at work had prevented Raimann from attending Obama's on-campus rally last month, which drew an estimated 30,000 people -- the largest turnout for an Obama event during this election cycle, according to his campaign.
But this time, she was certain that she would make it, and so would many of her friends.
Raimann, who cast her first vote for Obama in 2008 as an 18-year-old high school senior, admitted that most of her peers were more emotionally invested in his previous campaign, when Obama was the great, new hope for their generation. But she estimated that almost 90 percent of her friends had already voted or intended to vote on Election Day, and the vast majority of them support the president.
Four years into Obama's presidency, Raimann said that she was disappointed that his administration has not fostered more cooperation in Washington between the two parties, but she appreciates his efforts regarding equal pay for women and climate change.
And if there had been any possibility that she might sit this election out, the campaign's outreach via social media likely would have persuaded her to do otherwise.
"I listen to Pandora, and just about the only commercials that are on there are 'Vote Obama,' " she said. "I think that's a really effective way for them to go about it."
Later in the day, Blake, a 26-year-old graduate student who declined to provide his last name, parked his car with its faded Obama/Biden bumper sticker and stopped to chat on his way to class.
"The feeling is definitely a little bit different than last time, unfortunately," he said. "People I talk to aren't as enthusiastic as they were last time." He paused for a moment before adding, "But they're still voting."
Ever since University of Wisconsin students returned to campus on Aug. 15, Obama field organizers and young volunteers have been hard at work registering as many of them as possible and coming up with novel ways to get students more engaged in the campaign.
Last week, for example, the campaign held an early-voting event on campus that was headlined by not just Democratic Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin but also by two stars from the hit TV show "Glee."
"We have a strong social media presence but have also been doing the things on the ground to organize on campuses," said one Obama aide at campaign headquarters in Chicago. "So I wouldn't say it is under the radar. I think we have more tools then we had last time."
University of Wisconsin College Democrats chairperson Chris Hoffman, a junior political science major, said that the campaign and his group had registered over 8,000 students during the semester and have boosted their efforts to make phone calls and knock on doors.
Though he wasn't on campus at the time, Hoffman is well-versed in tales of the sky-high level of enthusiasm that swept through the university four years ago. But he disputed the notion that the Obama campaign needed to replicate that once-in-a-generation dynamic in order to succeed again.
"The president was a newcomer and had a platform of change in '08, and now that we've been through four years of the presidency, you alter how you go about campaigning," Hoffman said. "So I don't think it's a lack of enthusiasm. It's more that it's a challenge to bring back '08."
Hoffman and his peers know that the Obama magic that filled the air then is not coming back with just a few days to go.
But they are just as confident that the mundane tools of the trade they've used to get out the vote this time will carry the president to another victory in the Badger State.
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