Kelly: Does Omaha really matter in the race for the presidency? -
Published Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 6:47 am
Kelly: Does Omaha really matter in the race for the presidency?

In a state that is largely ignored in the presidential election campaign, it's good that some pundits are turning their gaze toward Omaha.

It might be a fleeting gaze. The candidates may continue to pay scant attention. But Sunday's results in The World-Herald Poll made some folks look our way.

In a Sept. 17-20 survey of registered voters in the 2nd Congressional District, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were tied at 44 percent each.

A political website that aggregates polls from across the nation said Sunday that Obama's “most impressive victory” in 2008 may have been the electoral vote he plucked out of the Omaha district in red state Nebraska. (Maine and Nebraska are the only states that award electoral votes by district.)

The website is called “538,” which is the number of electors in the Electoral College. The full name is “FiveThirtyEight: Nate Silver's Political Calculus,” which is a licensed feature of the New York Times.

The Times headline Sunday morning read: “Nebraska GOP Draws a Tougher Map for Obama.” That's because the Republican-dominated Nebraska Legislature redrew district lines in such a way to make the 2nd District more favorable for the Grand Old Party.

That was followed up with a separate article by 538 analyst Nate Silver: “Does Omaha Matter?”

That piece was posted Sunday evening, after publication of The World-Herald Poll. Silver said a credible poll such as the one taken for The World-Herald by Wiese Research Associates — 400 registered voters in the 2nd District, margin of error plus or minus 4.9 percentage points — should not be dismissed.

But the FiveThirtyEight Forecast is skeptical, he said, giving Obama only a 20 percent chance of winning the district. The forecast model uses nonpolling factors, such as Romney's having raised more than twice as much money in the district as Obama.

Silver noted that our newspaper on Sunday reported only the survey results for registered voters in the 2nd District, not likely voters. But the results for likely voters were not much different — 46 percent for Romney and 44 percent for Obama, with a margin of error of 5.4 points.

So does Omaha matter?

The 538 site ran thousands of simulations Sunday to come up with an Electoral College tie or a 270-268 vote. Silver concluded that the odds of the Omaha district becoming the tipping point in the presidential election are roughly 1,000 to 1.

Because about four-fifths of the states are considered “safe” for one candidate or the other and are not part of the electoral battleground, it's good that we're a possible tossup — even if it's a long shot that we would tip the election one way or the other.

Randall Adkins, chairman of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said neither side is working as hard in Omaha as in 2008, especially not the Obama campaign. There appear to be far fewer yard signs and much less door-to-door campaigning from either side.

“That doesn't mean they won't do it in the next six weeks,” he said. But with the Republicans comfortably ahead in polling for the seat in the House of Representatives, he said, “I'd be really surprised to see the Obama campaign spend the resources here that it did in '08.”

Obama's tie with Romney in the new 2nd District poll, Adkins said, might be partly the result of commercials aimed at western Iowa, which is part of the Omaha TV market.

Silver also mentioned the Iowa connection to Nebraska's largest city: “The city of Omaha shares a river border with Iowa and has a fair amount of cultural continuity with it, even if they disagree vehemently on college football.”

The New York Times article on Sunday quoted Paul Landow of the UNO political science department in explaining the redrawn lines of the 2nd District. A number of working-class Democrats in eastern Sarpy County, he said, were taken out of the 2nd District and replaced with suburban western Sarpy County Republicans from the 1st District.

Silver, though, said the redrawn lines make the 2nd District only “ever-so-slightly more favorable to Republicans.”

At least people are talking about Omaha and the presidential race in the same sentence.

Nebraska's peculiar district-by-district electoral vote law dates to a 1991 bill in the 49-member Legislature. On final reading it had 24 votes, one short of the needed 25, with State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha initially listed as “not voting.”

The Legislature is officially nonpartisan, but the bill was sponsored by a Democrat, Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln. Ashford, a Republican then (but now an independent running for mayor of Omaha next year), noticed Schimek giving him “that older-sister stare of hers.”

He switched to “yes,” and then-Gov. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, signed it into law.

Does Omaha matter? It does to us Omahans, whether we're Democrat, Republican or independent.

And why not? In a presidential election, everyone's vote should matter.

Contact the writer:


Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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