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Inside Obama's Campaign

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In 2008, Obama won 66 percent of the Latino vote. In a head-to-head race, current polling shows him beating Romney by a staggering 70 to 14 percent. Courting Latino voters could be key not only in tossup states like Nevada or the campaign's top new target, Arizona, but also in Midwestern states like Ohio, where immigrants have made inroads in recent years. "It's not a huge population in Ohio," says Figueroa, who guided the campaign's Hispanic outreach in 2008. "It's three percent – but, shit, that's the difference. Have you heard of Romney or Santorum doing anything in Ohio with Hispanics?"

The other key target for Messina is the 8 million young Americans who will be eligible to vote for the first time in 2012. The youth vote turned out in huge numbers back in 2008, breaking for Obama by a margin of 66 to 32 percent. But the president has lost his mojo with Millennials. According to a recent memo from Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, "Younger voters remain aloof from the president." The numbers put the president up just 55 to 43 over Romney among young voters. The slippage, Greenberg says, can be viewed as "either a problem or an opportunity" for the Obama campaign.

To bolster the president's support, Obama 2012 is reaching out to college students through what it calls Greater Together Summits. The goal is to recruit student supporters to work for the campaign on their campuses, and to arm them with facts and figures about Obama's record. Few presidents in history have delivered as much for young voters: He expanded Pell grants, oversaw a sweeping reform of student lending, put limits on credit-card companies that solicit on campuses and passed tax credits to help parents pay for college.

In February, a summit the campaign hosted in North Carolina for students at historically black colleges and universities was a big hit. Students thronged the auditorium at North Carolina Central University, forcing the campaign to expand the event into an overflow building. But in March, when the Obama team holds a similar summit at the University of Michigan, the warning signs are all too clear. The event is headlined by Obama's former White House youth liaison Kal Penn, the Hollywood star better known to pot-smoking moviegoers as Kumar. Yet the ornate Michigan Union ballroom, which can seat 600 students, is only two-thirds full.

The kids who have shown up are a far cry from fired up and ready to go. When Penn kicks off the event, he lights into the students: "That was the most polite applause I've heard in my life. Do it again!" But the crowd doesn't really come alive until Rep. John Dingell, the octogenarian congressman from Michigan, creakily takes the stage. "Kal," he says, "you're a great example of a young person who is dedicating his time and efforts to helping this country and our president – and, most importantly, the public perception of White Castle."

After the event, I run into Sarah Abramson on the front steps of the student union. A 23-year-old law student with reddish glasses and straight blond hair, she's all worked up – but not because she's starry-eyed for Obama or gung-ho to defend his record. Like many of her peers, she's furious at the Republicans over the assault being waged on women by Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh and GOP state legislatures across the country.

"The Obama campaign being here – it's an opportunity to act on the rage that we already feel," Abramson says. "It's not just contraception. Republicans are talking about not reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. It's all of the state laws that are trying to make it harder for women to have an abortion, even when it's needed. I feel like they're trying to put me back into the 1950s – and I'm not going to stand for that. That ain't happening."

Abramson's anger speaks volumes about Obama's campaign. Beyond all the talk of field offices and online organizing tools and voter registration, the president's best shot at re-election lies not with his record, but with his opponents. Obama won in 2008 because he positioned himself as a vehicle for American optimism, the living embodiment of transformation and progress. But now that candidate of boundless promise has become a president boxed in by the poisonous partisanship of Washington. Like Bill Clinton in 1996, Obama can no longer offer any realistic agenda for sweeping change – he can only vow to be better than the alternative. If his secret weapon in 2008 was hope, this time around it's fear. It's not about how far we've come – it's how much ground we'll lose if the Republicans are able to implement the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-gay agenda they've been championing during the ugly and seemingly endless GOP primaries.

I ask Abramson if she's ready to volunteer for Obama. "I'm usually lazy and apathetic when it comes to voting," she says. "I don't like situations where you have to knock on people's doors – it's just awkward for me. But you realize that things matter. So I am volunteering. I've got time in August and I'm going to spend the entire month either in my home district or on the campaign trail, in my car campaigning. And I'm going to do as much as I can while I'm here on campus. Because I'm just pissed!"

This story is from the April 12th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

 


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