Obama returns to his liberal base

President Obama is focusing his campaign efforts on the voters who turned out for him in force in 2008 and who he will need to mobilize again this year. 

The president’s most high-profile move came this week when he reached out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, a group with which he took 70 percent of the vote in 2008, by personally endorsing gay marriage.

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But Obama has also engaged in a sustained push to re-energize young voters. He won the support of 66 percent of voters age 18-29 in 2008 against GOP rival Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who took 32 percent.

Polls and ballot initiatives suggest the same-sex marriage endorsement was a risky move — it’s presently unpopular in several battleground states, including North Carolina, where this week voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment banning gay marriage. Democrats will hold their national convention there in September.

However, Obama’s public pronouncement on the issue has energized the gay community and secured for him the kind of campaign donations that his super-PACs had yet to deliver.

On Thursday, Obama raked in $15 million at a fundraiser hosted by actor George Clooney. In June, the president will return to Los Angeles for an LGBT gala and a separate fundraiser hosted by Ryan Murphy, co-creator of the show "Glee," and his fiancé David Miller. Obama hopes to pull in another $10 million from the two events.

Obama’s nod to the gay community is largely symbolic — same-sex marriage remains a state issue — and so may only provide a brief jolt to his campaign.

But there is another group the campaign hopes will have a more lasting effect come Election Day — the youth vote. 

Obama's schedule is heavily weighted toward attracting young voters. On Monday, the president will deliver the commencement address at Barnard College in New York City, and later this month he’ll give keynote addresses to Joplin High School in Missouri and the Air Force Academy in Colorado, both states that will be critical in determining the outcome of the 2012 election.

Last weekend the president officially began his reelection campaign at two schools in swing states, visiting Ohio State University, where he drew an estimated crowd of 14,000, and Virginia Commonwealth University, where the president was introduce by VCU’s head basketball coach, Shaka Smart.

Smart, 35, is wildly popular among college students in Virginia after leading the VCU Rams to an unlikely Final Four birth in the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament and declining coaching offers from bigger schools to remain in the state.

Obama had his eye on the youth vote even before officially launching his campaign. In April, the president held large rallies on campuses in the battleground states of North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado, urging Congress to prevent a hike in student loan interest rates.

The trips were billed as official White House business, though Republicans criticized them as taxpayer-funded campaign stops. Still, the administration believes it has a winning issue with young voters on the looming interest rate hike on federally subsidized student loans.

Last week, the president spoke at Washington-Lee High School — again in Virginia — and chastised House Republicans for passing legislation that would keep student loan rates steady by paying for it with cuts to a fund established under his healthcare law. Democrats say that would disproportionately harm women’s health programs.

Here again the president is looking to rally a key portion of his base, in this case female voters, with whom he already holds a massive lead over Romney. Monday’s address to Barnard College, a women’s university, has the added benefit of being in front of an all-female crowd.

Obama’s ceiling for the 2012 election is widely believed to be lower than that of his unique and history-making 2008 run, so the president can’t afford to take for granted those groups that turned out for him with such energy in the last election.

The campaign already found itself on the defensive against speculation that it faces a lack of enthusiasm after last Saturday’s Ohio State rally failed to fill an 18,000 seat arena. The event still drew 14,000 — about twice most estimates for the largest crowd Mitt Romney has been able to draw — but a stark contrast to the massive crowds Obama pulled the last time around.

A recent Quinnipiac survey showed that Democrats face a considerable enthusiasm gap against Republicans, especially in comparison to the 2008 election.

In a presentation at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution on Thursday, the group's Governance Studies Chairman Bill Galston called 2012 a “classic mobilization” election and said Obama would have to appeal to the “animal spirits” of his liberal Democratic base if he is to reverse that trend.