PI Original Micah Maidenberg Friday September 17th, 2010, 11:24am

Turning Out Obama Voters In November

No message has more power to motivate Cook County's so-called "Obama voters," a new polling memo shows, than one that focuses on Sarah Palin and the Republican Party.

No message has more power to motivate Cook County's so-called "Obama voters" -- a group that cast a ballot in the presidential election two years ago but did not vote in the 2006 mid-terms -- than one that focuses on Sarah Palin and the Republican Party.

That's the conclusion of a survey undertaken at the behest of the Service Employees International Union's Illinois State Council, one of Illinois' largest labor organizations and a force in Democratic Party politics in the state. (Full disclosure: the SEIU State Council sponsors this website.)

Turning out some portion of that voting bloc will be crucial if Democratic candidates like Gov. Pat Quinn are to have a realistic shot at victory this fall. A confluence of realities, from the deeply troubled economy to historical patterns that tilt against incumbent pols during mid-term elections, makes that a daunting task. Analysts like FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver put the odds that Quinn's opponent Bill Brady wins on November 2 at nearly 90 percent, for example. A Tribune poll, however, calculated Brady's lead over Quinn at only five points in early September.

"What we're trying to figure out is what we're all trying to figure out: how we get Obama voters, how we get them engaged and out to the vote this year," said Jerry Morrison, the political director of SEIU's state council. So far, new Obama voters haven't been much of a factor in Democratic Party primaries this year, he said. They're simply not in the pattern of voting in non-presidential years. The challenge is evinced in campaigns from Pennsylvania to California."

According to Morrison, there are around 875,000 voters in Cook County who voted in the 2008 presidential contest but not in the 2006 governor's election; many, but not all, are newly registered voters. SEIU will target about 500,000 of them, beginning with a $1 million advertising blitz it will roll out in a couple of weeks. The goal is increasing the likelihood that at least 100,000 of those folks head to the polls.

And that's where Palin comes in.

Over five days ending September 12, SEIU's polling firm Bennett, Pett and Normington (BNP) conducted a telephone survey of 500 people in Cook County who did not vote in 2006, did vote in 2008, and are unlikely to cast a ballot this year. The poll found most among this voting pool plan on sitting out November's election.

However, 41 percent of respondents told BNP that three messages made it "extremely likely" they would vote: One focused on Republicans attacking Obama and possibly trying to repeal the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all citizens equal legal protections. Another ties Obama with other Democratic candidates, saying Obama and the Democrats want to restore the economy and clean up the mess President George Bush left behind. The last focuses on "Sarah Palin and the Tea Party crowd" wanting Democrats to stay home on Election Day. (The full memo is available here.)

References to the ex-Alaska governor and the Republicans proved the most motivating, according to the memo, trumping issues like crime, state budget cuts, or student loan issues. "Two of the three top testing messages also have to do with Republicans, including Sarah Palin, taking the country backwards," a summation of the poll reads. "The best motivating messages are dominated by evoking negative images of what could happen, more from an ideological perspective than one focused on issues."

"It is a very partisan message, which is that Sarah Palin and the Republican Party want to take power so they can stop the Obama agenda," Morrison said. Final decisions about the messaging strategy are still being made.

Those responding to the poll were diverse in race, educational attainment, and, interestingly, age (it's not just about young Obama voters, in other words). Nearly 70 percent of the 500 had at least some college education. Sixty percent of respondents were African-American, 24 percent were white, and 10 percent were Hispanic; more than half were women. The respondent's ages included 18 to 34 year olds, 35 to 49 year olds, and those over 50 in roughly equal measure.

Rather that focus resources on more traditional campaign outreach like direct mail or phone banks, the union will buy ad space on popular websites, Chicago Transit Authority buses and trains, and in the Tribune company's Red Eye to reach this group. It will send text messages and even "Google bomb" information into the popular search engine to raise the specter of Palin and the Republicans.

The point is to deploy the message where the Obama voters actually are. Fifty-six percent of respondents in BNP's poll reported sending a text message every day, 42 percent search Google every day, and 30 percent use Facebook every day (all the rates are higher for weekly usage). Nearly one in four respondents rides a CTA bus at least once a week while almost one in five rides the train weekly. Just 15 percent reported getting most of their news by reading a local newspaper. Thirty-one percent said they got their news from local television broadcasts.

"It'll be a very different campaign, actually," Morrison said, and one he predicted that traditional players in the Democratic Party "won't even see."

National trends suggest an uphill battle. Gallup reported on September 3 that only 25 percent of black voters, for example, have given "some" or "quite a lot" of thought to the 2010 elections. Young adults appear similarly disengaged. Groups that helped propel Obama to victory in 2008 -- women, blacks, and young voters -- don't seem set for a repeat performance this year, Gallup concluded.

But Morrison argued that Illinois' generally blue orientation gives advocacy organizations like SEIU a deep well of potential voters to tap. He said Cook County's Democratic committeemen are gearing up their organizations to show their capabilities ahead of next year's mayoral race, which could help boost turnout. And Obama remains relatively popular in Illinois -- 51 percent approved of the job he's done, another Tribune poll from early September found.

"A partisan message to his voters may be more effective here," Morrison said.

On November 3, Democratic candidates up for election this fall will see if that proves true enough to put them over the top.

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