By CLAY BARBOUR, MARY SPICUZZA and DEBORAH ZIFF | Wisconsin State Journal | Posted: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 5:45 am
President Barack Obama served as the closing act Tuesday for a rock-n-roll, fire-up-the-troops extravaganza on the UW-Madison campus — a giant rally meant to recapture the excitement of the campaign trail and bridge the so-called "enthusiasm gap" among younger, Democratic voters.
Obama took the stage at Library Mall to a raucous crowd, following a performance by musician Ben Harper and a series of speeches by the state's major Democratic candidates. From the outset, the president made it clear why he was in Madison, and on campus, at this moment.
"The biggest mistake we can make right now is to let disappointment lead to apathy," Obama said. "I am promising you Wisconsin, change is going to come. You got to stick with me. You can't lose hope."
Recent polls have shown that while Democrats remain as popular — or as unpopular — as Republicans nationwide, the GOP has nearly a 2-to-1 lead in the number of likely voters. That math could equal record losses at the polls Nov. 2 if the tide is not turned in the next five weeks.
In a statement after the rally, Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman Reince Priebus said the problems of the country are deeper than any speech can solve.
"While Democrats all across the country might have been watching the speech and deciding whether or not to get fired up, Republicans and independents all across our state have been energized to make a real change for months now," Priebus said.
According to UW-Madison Police, more than 26,500 people showed up for the rally, making it Obama's largest since the campaign. Most packed into the mall on what turned into a crisp fall night, standing shoulder-to-shoulder from Memorial Library to Park Street, while others spilled up Bascom Hill.
They held signs that read "Moving America Forward," while every so often someone would yell out, "Obama, we love you."
Emily Lawless, a UW-Madison junior from Lakeville, Minn., waited in line five and a half hours for the chance to see the president live.
"You're not going to remember your accounting class when you're 40, but you'll definitely remember this," she said.
Enthusiastic, but will they vote?
But the thrill of seeing the president doesn't necessarily translate into supporting Democratic candidates during a midterm election. Even Lawless admitted she would likely not vote. "It's too much work with the absentee ballot," she said.
Most experts agree the Democratic drop-off has come from the liberal, typically younger, wing of the party, which seems disillusioned with the leaders those voters helped put into office.
Obama, perhaps more than any other national politician in recent memory, benefitted from his connection to younger voters. And while the president has racked up an impressive number of legislative accomplishments, many feel he has stopped short on several of his promises.
Some feel the party caved to GOP pressure and delivered watered-down versions of both health care and Wall Street reform. And they believe Obama and the party has failed to keep its promises on repealing "Don't Ask, Dont Tell," ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and enacting effective immigration reform.
"The enthusiasm gap is real," said Rodd Freitag, UW-Eau Claire political science professor. "I think younger voters may be experiencing the frustrations of seeing our political system at work, of not getting everything you want immediately. The euphoria has gone away."
Risk to Democrats real
The national sentiment has reached Wisconsin, where Democrats are fighting to hold onto control of the governor's office, a U.S. Senate seat, several congressional seats, and both houses of the state Legislature in this fall's midterm elections.
Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, an 18-year veteran with a reputation for independence, is also struggling to overcome the state's dissatisfaction with Washington.
Three of the four most recent polls show him trailing Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson by large margins, the biggest a double-digit lead for the Republican nominee and political newcomer.
The senator was originally scheduled to be in Washington Tuesday but announced his arrival at the rally via Twitter less than an hour before kickoff.
Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett lags in polls behind Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the Republican candidate, in the race for governor.
Barrett introduced the president Tuesday. He revved the crowd up by addressing the issue that brought Obama to Madison.
"So (Republicans are) betting you're not going to vote," he said. "They're betting you're going to stay home. That's what they're betting on, that people will forget who drove us to the edge of a depression."
Nation in ‘deep hole'
Wisconsin is clearly important to Obama. He has become a regular visitor to the state this year, with stops in Racine, Menomonee Falls and Milwaukee.
His appearance at UW-Madison is one of four major rallies planned leading up to the Nov. 2 election, including events in Philadelphia on Oct 10, Ohio on Oct. 17, and Las Vegas on Oct. 22.
During his fiery 40-minute speech, the president made it clear he understood that some people feel he is moving too slowly, but he preached patience.
"The hole we are climbing out of is a deep one," he said. "Now is not the time to give up."
Dana Brinkmann, 28, attended the rally. Like many young voters, she hadn't given much thought to the midterms. But following Obama's speech, she changed her mind.
"It's funny how moved I am," she said. "I'm absolutely going to vote, and if I didn't come here, I wouldn't."
Freitag said it's not too late for the president to turn the Democrats' momentum around.
"I think he is uniquely qualified to generate that kind of enthusiasm," he said. "It won't turn the midterm into a rousing endorsement of the Democratic Party, but he can turn a few races."