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Can Democrats Win Over Voters in Ohio?

This post originally appeared on Slate.

Barack Obama
President Obama delivers a speech on the economy in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 8, 2010 CBS News/ Josh Gross

COLUMBUS, Ohio--Steve Nicholson barely opens the storm door for the Democratic campaign volunteer trying to talk to him about the Ohio governor's race. "I don't care for either one," he says, "I just want jobs." The volunteer says that's exactly why he should vote for the incumbent, Democrat Ted Strickland. "Not voting is a vote for Kasich," she says, referring to Republican challenger John Kasich. "Strickland will be better for jobs," agrees Nicholson, 30. So will he vote? No. Does he at least want a little campaign literature to learn about the race? No. The storm door closes.

Rachel Harris lives two blocks away and sounds at first a lot like her neighbor up the street. "I want the same thing everyone else wants," she says. "Jobs." At 29 years old, Harris is the mother of five and makes $7.50 an hour working as a cashier at a dairy. "I don't know which is which," she says of the candidates. But as the volunteer goes through the slate, Harris softens. "That means good jobs," she says when she hears about renewable energy programs. "Thank you for informing me," she says, promising that she's likely to vote for the Democrats.

For the Democratic Party, the difference this year between a rout and survival may come down to Steve Nicholson vs. Rachel Harris. Neither is likely to vote Republican. But it's unlikely that both will vote Democratic. As Nov. 2 approaches, Democrats face a highly motivated opposition. The search for ways to excite people--not just their core voters but anyone who might be receptive to their message--grows more desperate by the day. "Folks, wake up!" President Obama told a group of Democrats Monday night. "This is not some academic exercise."

Democratic hopes rest in part on Organizing for America, the Obama campaign organization that mobilized such an army for his victory in 2008. In Ohio, OFA has joined with the Democratic Party in perhaps the largest ground effort in the country. They are aided by labor unions. The AFL-CIO has been targeting workplaces and walking the streets talking to its members.

In their most expansive moments, Democrats talk about OFA as the "sleeping giant" in what looks like a bad year for Democrats. For months Obama adviser David Plouffe has been preaching the gospel that if the organization can motivate a portion of those roughly 15 million first-time voters who came out for Obama, the Democrats will win close contests. President Obama just taped a video message to OFA volunteers asking them to "fight for our candidates as strongly as you fought for me. ... I need everyone here to step up their game. We have to have the same energy. The same enthusiasm. ... We've just gone through the first quarter. The game is still on."

The quasi-scientific precision of the process sure looks and sounds impressive. Aides talk about "capacity" and "metrics" as if they could produce voters like car parts. In Ohio, they've already reached out to more voters than they had by August 2008, in part because they've added more paid staff. Neighborhood captains who organized for Obama have been working their contacts ever since. The science of organizing says that voter contact is the best way to motivate your voters. Volunteers walk the neighborhoods with sharp-looking maps, black dots marking each house that might have first-time voters or "sporadic Democrats." Scripts volunteers read to voters are tweaked frequently. Each contact is tabulated to gauge motivation for the next round of outreach

Columbus, Ohio.
Planning a stay in Columbus? You can find gorillas, leopards, and Siberian tigers at the Columbus Zoo. No telling where you might see bedbugs. Recent infestations of the insects put Columbus number seven on the list of most bedbug-infested cities. istockphoto

In a recent moment of low morale, OFA aides sent around Obama clips from 2008 to remind themselves of the spark that started it all--and perhaps what it used to be like to have hope, enthusiasm, and momentum. Polls in the race for Senate and governor show the Republicans up by 20 percentage points. Ignore the polls, say Democratic organizers who are determined to battle the rising flood waters. But it's hard to tell whether they're stacking sandbags or sugar packets. An afternoon of canvassing for Democratic votes highlights how hard it is to build a robust turnout.

Some of the challenges come simply from trying to motivate voters in a midterm rather than presidential year. There's no presidential horserace to follow. People are unfamiliar with the candidates. (Democrats can take heart that several people said they'd vote for the party even though they were unfamiliar with the candidates.) Conservatives are motivated by the desire for change. Democrats can't use that argument this time. Instead they have to make arguments for patience and herald incremental change, none of which is very stirring.

Samy Sekar, the highly motivated 20-year-old Ohio State student I followed, was patient and engaging. Wearing a faded "Team Obama 08" T-shirt, she talked to even the most gruff people as if they were in the food line at a Democratic picnic. But for the low-information voters thinking through unfamiliar names, being pulled into a discussion about the issues on a weekend is like doing homework. Even the most engaging volunteer can only be so forceful.

One strategist working to turn out the vote in Ohio pointed out that when voters are told that it took a long time to get into the economic mess and it's going to take some time to get out of it, they seem to better understand their plight and why change has been slow. But it doesn't motivate them to vote. Like Nicholson, they aren't going to punish Democrats; they just don't think their vote matters in a world of such slow incremental change. A wide-ranging federal corruption probe of Democratic office-holders in Cleveland, a Democratic stronghold, may also depress turnout.

"It's grim," says one Democratic strategist involved in helping a variety of House and Senate candidates. When I asked another Democratic strategist for his assessment of Ohio, he referred to Bill Clinton's ability to come back in 1996 after the '94 losses. Handicappers are making ominous predictions, too. Congressional Quarterly just moved two Ohio congressional races from "toss-up" to "lean Republican." The difficulty on the ground in Ohio has led to speculation about whether the national Democratic committees are going to write off the state. Why throw good money after candidates that are sure to lose?

Local Democratic organizers promise they have built an organization large enough that even if the rate of return is low on the outreach, they'll still get enough votes. The most aggressive outreach has only just begun, they say. Democratic voters are starting to recognize the economic stakes in the election, as are swing voters. It's an argument the New Democratic Network's Simon Rosenberg has made recently about the national landscape for Democrats.

Local organizers argue that despite the chatter from pundits and strategists, their national partners are engaged. That's what they're supposed to say. But Ohio is a special state. It may be the most important redistricting battleground this year. Vice President Joe Biden, who just visited the state to campaign for Strickland, called the governor's race the most important in the country. That's in part because the next governor and other statewide candidates will preside over the redistricting process after this year's census. The party in power could lock in an advantage in more than a dozen House seats for 10 years.

Obama is scheduled to return to Ohio in early October. For the president, building strength in Ohio is important for 2010--but also for 2012. One strategist in the state said that if the Democrats are successful this year, Ohio "can serve as a firewall" for the presidential campaign in two years.

If there is to be a Democratic comeback in Ohio, it will rely on a two-pronged attack that relies on tying Republican candidates to Wall Street and their support for free trade. In the African-American community, the comeback argument is different: It's all about Obama. Posters at OFA headquarters that go up in African-American communities read "Our Time is Now" and show Obama getting his hair cut at the barber shop. Says one organizer explaining the pitch, "The Republicans want to take down Obama in 2010, and you need to have his back."

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John Dickerson is a CBS News political analyst. He is also Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. You can also follow him on Twitter here.
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