President Barack Obama plans a University of Wisconsin rally complete with rock bands to ask young voters who helped propel him to the White House to re-engage and save fellow Democrats from political disaster this November.
Crammed into an outdoor mall at the Madison campus, Tuesday's visit carries a decidedly different political atmosphere than the one that surrounded the then-candidate in 2008, when a boisterous overflow crowd of more than 17,000 people greeted Obama at a basketball arena. His popularity has since dipped amid the nationwide recession, and many Democrats face tough challenges in the Nov. 2 midterm election.
During a Monday conference call with college journalists, Obama acknowledged excitement has waned in the last two years. But he said he hoped the Madison rally would re-emphasize the importance of the midterm to advancing his agenda.
"You can't sit it out," Obama said. "You can't suddenly just check in once every 10 years or so, on an exciting presidential election, and then not pay attention during big midterm elections where we've got a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans."
One of the biggest choices facing Wisconsin voters is whether to send Sen. Russ Feingold back for a fourth term. Feingold — who's facing Republican millionaire businessman Ron Johnson — is skipping Obama's event Tuesday, opting to remain in Washington where the Senate is in session. Feingold also chose to attend his hometown Labor Day parade rather than stand with Obama at a Milwaukee rally earlier this month.
Feingold's absence this time around may be more curious given his reliance on college students and independent voters to fuel his wins. In 2004, exit polls showed voters ages 18-29 favored Feingold 56 percent to 42 percent over Republican Tim Michels, mirroring Feingold's 55 percent to 44 percent margin of victory.
Wisconsin traditionally has had one of the highest young voter turnouts. In 2008, 58 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, according to the Washington-based Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). Nationally, exit polls showed young voters backed Obama 66 percent to 31 percent over Republican John McCain.
They helped give Obama a surprisingly large 14-point win in Wisconsin, far greater than the margin in the two previous presidential elections in which the Democrat won the state by less than half a percentage point.
Democrats hoped the momentum would carry into the midterm, but Wisconsin's mood soured as the recession brought the state's unemployment levels in a generation. A July poll showed Obama's approval in Wisconsin at 49 percent, down from 60 percent last November.
The enthusiasm gap could prove particularly precarious for Democrats this year because so many more young voters supported them in 2008, said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE.
"The story of how much the turnout falls is a story about how disillusioned the Democratic base is now," Levine said.
The mood on campus has shifted as well, said University of Wisconsin senior Nick Novak, a volunteer for Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker's campaign.
"A lot of students just kind of blindly followed him because that's what everyone else was doing because he was the cool candidate," Novak, 21, said of Obama.
Novak said student efforts backing Walker are more organized on campus than they were for Republican John McCain's presidential campaign two years ago.
"I think all around there's a general excitement about conservative candidates who are going to change the way our state and nation is run," said Novak, who is working with Republican students on 20 other Wisconsin campuses.
Sondra Milkie, volunteer coordinator for the College Democrats of Madison, said students are working just as hard to get Feingold and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett elected this year.
"They are incredibly excited," said Milkie, also a 21-year-old senior. "I think people know this election is important to students."
The state Democratic Party has a dozen paid campus organizers working with college Democrats statewide to make phone calls, distribute leaflets and help students get registered and turn out Nov. 2, said party chairman Mike Tate.
They are using the same tactics as during the 2008 campaign, which focused heavily on social networking websites and cell phone text messaging to organize students, said Tate, who predicted the president's visit would be "an absolute shot in the arm for the base of our party."
The Madison rally is one of four Obama has scheduled in swing states during the next month. He will almost certainly talk about administration efforts to make college more affordable, stimulate the economy so jobs are available for graduates, and allow young adults to remain on parents' health insurance until age 26.
But the event is organized as more youth-focused pep rally than policy discussion. Popular rock band the National, along with singer-songwriter Ben Harper, are scheduled to warm up the crowd.
And despite Feingold's absence, the White House clearly recognizes holding his seat is essential to maintaining Democratic control of the Senate. First lady Michelle Obama plans to host a fundraiser for Feingold in Milwaukee next month. During his Labor Day visit, Obama praised Feingold, saying he's looking out for middle class workers, and is likely to talk up the senator again Tuesday.