2012: How Obama Can Mobilize His Liberal Base

President Obama arrives in Miami on June 13. Jeff Daly / PictureGroup-AP

It was a rare confessional moment for Barack Obama. At a Miami fundraiser in mid-June, the president acknowledged that it's "not as cool" as it was in 2008 to support him. It isn't just a matter of fewer hip posters and viral videos. It's a matter of votes. Rekindling the enthusiasm of African-Americans, educated white liberals, Latinos, young people, and union members—the Democratic Party's most loyal and progressive members—will be a huge challenge. After all, you can only elect the first African-American president once, and the past two and a half years have deeply disappointed many liberals. "I know a lot of the kids who worked hard in 2008," says Hodding Carter III, adviser to the last one-term Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) and now a professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. "They walk around like cattle who've been hit with stun guns between their eyes. This isn't how it was supposed to be."

Obama and his people have heard this sort of thing so often that they no longer bother to take umbrage. When I asked chief Obama reelection guru David Axelrod about this sense of disillusionment, he patiently ticked off a list of accomplishments: health-care reform, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," financial regulatory reform, the drawdown from Iraq, student-loan reform. "Did we keep faith with the things that the president said he would do when he ran?" asks Axelrod. "There is a long list of things he said he'd do that we in fact did."

It's a solid inventory. But it's countered by the undeniable reality that the country hasn't noticeably moved in a more liberal direction (quite the opposite), and by the widely held perception among progressives that Obama will never wage fierce battle on behalf of liberal ideals. When I interviewed Justin Ruben, the executive director of MoveOn.org, whose 5 million members (many in swing states) must be revved up and mobilized if the president is to be reelected, he gave me four or five variants of the line "People need to feel like the president and the Democrats are really going to fight for their side."

Unfortunately, making tough, partisan economic arguments has never been the president's strong suit. "Since the beginning of his candidacy in 2007, Barack has struggled to put together a sustained, winning economic argument," said Simon Rosenberg of NDN, a Washington-based think tank. "With 'Morning in America' not really a viable option for 2012, he is going to have to draw brighter lines with the GOP, and particularly do much more to discredit their failed and reckless economic approach."

The base vote can still emerge in large numbers, but the dominant factor this time won't be hope and change. Instead, the factors will be fear of the other side, state and local political conditions (think of how motivated Democrats are to regain control of their politics in Wisconsin), and demographic changes that are still redounding to the Democrats' benefit. And because we elect presidents by states, the place to assess Obama's prospects is on the ground.

Wake County, N.C.; Arapahoe County, Colo.; Franklin County, Ohio—these are representative base Democratic counties. They are in swing states, which means the president will need a big vote in these places to offset a presumed high conservative turnout in other parts of these states. And they are counties that have only recently become solidly Democratic, because of demographic changes. "Obama's majorities in these counties are not secure," says Ruy Teixeira, coauthor of the 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, which predicted the bluing of states like then-red Colorado. "He needs a full-bore mobilization effort in these counties to get his supporters out and develop the margins he needs to carry swing states like Ohio, Colorado, and North Carolina."

Wake County is home to Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina. Bush won it by 7 points in 2000 and then, in a sign that demographics were changing, by just 2 points in 2004 against the Yankee John Kerry. But in 2008 Obama blew it open—a 15-point win, 57–42, and a turnout 80,000 votes higher than in '04. Since then? Very different story. In 2009 voters installed an aggressive conservative majority on the school board, and in 2010 Republicans took a congressional seat and swept most state and county offices (the GOP won back both statehouses last year).

I don't know a single expert who thinks Obama has a great shot at winning the Tarheel State again. But he wants it badly enough to hold the Democratic convention in Charlotte (Mecklenburg will be another county to watch). Mack Paul, the attorney who chairs the Wake County Democratic Party, believes that population growth has brought in more Democrats since 2008, and he insists, "I hear more anger directed at Democrats who don't support the president." His GOP counterpart, Sue Bryant, ventures that her party's candidate might just carry Wake, but "even if we come within 5 points here, that's the election in North Carolina."

In Arapahoe County, outside Denver, Democrats only recently came to outnumber Republicans in voter enrollment. But the trend lines are clear: whereas Bush beat Kerry 51–47 in 2004, Obama romped McCain by 56–43 in 2008, when turnout was about 15 percent higher than four years earlier.

In the last decade, the Latino population of Arapahoe County has more than doubled, to 105,249. If the Democratic Party can register and mobilize this key Obama constituency—Latinos gave him 67 percent of their votes nationally last time—the president would likely carry Arapahoe by a far larger margin than he did in '08. But Olivia Mendoza, executive director of the nonpartisan Colorado Latino Forum, says the community's temperature about Obama is awfully lukewarm. "This is very anecdotal," Mendoza ventures, "but overall, in my experience? General dissatisfaction."

Todd Mata, the county Democratic chairman, acknowledges that "a lot of people are a little disillusioned, rightly or wrongly," with Obama, but he says that on the ground, the party structure is working much more closely than last time with Organizing for America (OFA), the Obama get-out-the-vote vehicle. Obama might benefit here from a local GOP that "doesn't have it together," according to Scott Adler, political-science professor at the University of Colorado. When I spoke with Joy Hoffman, the county Republican chairwoman, she did acknowledge she's herding cats, between the more traditional Republicans and no fewer than "15 or 16 distinct Tea Party groupings in the county." But, she insisted, the state GOP is picking up the pieces from its 2010 debacle, when its gubernatorial candidate got just 11 percent of the vote.

And then there's Ohio. Big numbers in Franklin County—home to the state capital of Columbus, Ohio's largest city—are crucial to Democratic hopes. Again, the trend is evident: Al Gore won the county 49–48 in 2000, when 414,000 votes were cast. Kerry won it 53–45, with 517,000 total votes. Obama: a 59–40 blowout on the strength of 575,000 total votes.

It's pretty difficult to imagine another nearly 20-point win. But Greg Schultz, the county's Democratic chairman and the state director for OFA, says an on-the-ground network exists today in a way it didn't even in 2008. "There's a structure that remains in place today that is self-organizing," he boasts, even in Republican-leaning parts of the county like Westerville.

Another factor that might motivate Democrats in Franklin, and across Ohio: the unpopular Republican governor, John Kasich. He won a narrow victory over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland in 2010, when base Republican voters turned out and their Democratic counterparts did not. Now Kasich and his public-employee-union-bashing bill (S.B. 5) are targets of rage. "If the Democrats are smart," says Herb Asher of the Ohio State University, "here and in Wisconsin they'll have a very simple theme: Elections have consequences. Look at what happened in your states."

That'll be about the strongest argument Obama can make to base voters: it could, and will, be a lot worse if you don't vote for me. That's true, and fear is usually a pretty good motivator in politics. But it still isn't what people were hoping for, and it seems inevitable that some percentage of the most loyal Democrats will stay home. In these three counties and others like them, that percentage will be the difference between reelection and retirement.