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Watch for Obama in Omaha in fall campaign

Unlike the other states, which allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, Nebraska and Maine allow for theirs to be split among different presidential candidates. This may create an opening for either Barack Obama or John McCain, or both.
Image: Barack Obama campaigning in Nebraska
Sen. Barack Obama campaigns in Omaha last FebruaryEmmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images file

On election night in the last two presidential elections political junkies have been obsessed with Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, and Florida. Each of those states was decided by only a couple of percentage points, or a few thousand votes.

This year on the night of Nov. 4, instead of worrying about the margin in Milwaukee, or the absentees in Albuquerque, how about keeping an eye on Omaha?

While 48 states allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, Nebraska and Maine allow for theirs to be split among different presidential candidates.

Nebraska has five electoral votes; Maine has four.

If a candidate wins the most votes in one of Nebraska’s three congressional districts, then he would get one of the state’s five electoral votes, even if he gets fewer votes statewide than his opponent.

The Democratic presidential candidate could win one electoral vote by carrying the Second Congressional District, which is anchored in Omaha.

Nelson sees potential in Omaha
“One electoral vote could be significant — it has been in the past,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D- Neb., an Obama supporter. “It could be this time, and that would put Nebraska in play.”

Nelson and other Democrats think the Democratic presidential candidate could pick up one or more of Nebraska’s electoral votes this year. Nelson said his staff has already discussed this scenario with Obama campaign strategists.

And the man who represents the Second Congressional District, Republican Rep. Lee Terry, said he thinks Obama will be making a play for his district.

“Obama has an office in Omaha, so I assume he is competing for it,” said Terry.

He added, “It’s going to be pretty hard work (for Obama to win the district). I know of a recent poll that had McCain up by seven points in the Second Congressional District. But you never know what can happen in this district this year."

Terry asked, "Does it make sense for Obama to play? Yeah. Does it make sense for the Republican National Committee to ignore it? No, that doesn’t make any sense to me, but that’s what they’re doing. They don’t think they have to put any resources into it.”

He added, “If it drives up the Democratic vote, then it will have an impact on my race. We think that we’ve got enough of a cushion that we can absorb that, but I don’t like absorbing that. We’ve thought long and hard about the effect of Obama in this race on voter turnout.”

Nelson signed in to law Nebraska’s electoral vote-splitting bill when he was Nebraska’s governor. “I thought it would put Nebraska in play, plus I happen to think it’s a better way; I’ve never thought winner-take-all is the way to go,” said Nelson.

How 'winner-take-all' works
“Winner-take-all” means that if a candidate wins a state even by a small margin, he still gets all of that state’s electoral votes.

In a three-person race, he can win with less than 50 percent of the vote in that state.

In 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton, competing with George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, won only 40 percent of the vote in Ohio. But Clinton got all of Ohio’s 21 electoral votes. This pattern was repeated in 29 of the other states Clinton won.

Does Nelson envision an Obama-in-Omaha campaign come October? “I certainly do,” said the Nebraskan.

If Obama is the Democratic nominee and if he selects Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. as his running mate, he could be in stronger position to win all of the Nebraska’s electoral votes.

But Hagel’s votes to outlaw some types of abortion, to ban marriage between same-sex couples, and to confirm conservative Supreme Court nominees Samuel Alito and John Roberts might make him unpalatable to Democratic activists.

A reality check is in order here. Nebraska has long been one of the most reliably Republican states in presidential elections. In 2004, George W. Bush won Nebraska with two-thirds of the vote.

Since 1940, a Democrat presidential candidate has carried Nebraska only once: Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The only other Democrat who came close was Harry Truman in 1948, when he got 46 percent.

And there may be a bit of bluff or decoy in the Obama/Omaha concept. Campaign strategists sometimes like their opponents to think that a state is competitive when it really is not.

Come October, it will become clearer, assuming Obama is the Democratic nominee and if TV viewers in Omaha begin seeing his ads.

Iowa, Nebaska's next-door neighbor, is certain to be a competitive state this fall. Bush won Iowa by only 10,000 votes, less than one percent, in 2004.

So an Omaha strategy for the Democrats has a certain logic. A TV ad on NBC's Omaha affiliate WOWT would reach about 97,000 households in western Iowa.

McCain competitive in Maine?
As for Maine, maverick third-party candidate Ross Perot came within four percentage points of carrying the state’s Second Congressional District and thus getting one electoral vote in 1992.

Is it feasible for McCain to try to get one of Maine's electoral votes?

Veteran Maine Republican campaign strategist Roy Lenardson said, “I don’t see how McCain could walk away from taking a second look” at the Second Congressional District, which is largely rural, less affluent, and more conservative than the state’s First District, which includes the city of Portland.

“It comes down what is the power of one? Is it worth spending $1 million for one electoral vote?” Lenardson asked.

He explained that biggest city in the Second District, Bangor, has a relatively inexpensive media market.

A television ad buy of “between $50,000 and $100,000 would get you up on the air for a week in a big way” in the Bangor media market, Lenardson said.

He added that McCain’s strong alliance with Maine’s two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, would help him in the state. Snowe was re-elected with 74 percent of the vote in 2006; Collins faces Democrat Tom Allen in her re-election bid this fall.