Can Obama make Bridgeport a game-changer?

When Bridgeport shows up to vote, it shows up Democrat. But the city, the largest and also one of the poorest in the state, doesn’t always perform on Election Day.

And with a close race for the 4th Congressional District seat, Democrats badly need Bridgeport voters to turn out.

“As Bridgeport turnout goes that’s how goes the election. That’s how important the city is,” says Gary Rose, chairman of the government and politics department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

The city, whose population numbers at around 140,000, saw an electoral storm in 2008 when an unprecedented 40,682 voters came out. Barack Obama took Bridgeport by more than 27,000 votes. Democrat Jim Himes, riding that wave, beat the moderate Republican Chris Shays by 21,000 votes in the city, a decisive number given his district-wide margin of 11,621.

But as Himes knows, without the big name on the top of the ticket this year, mobilizing Bridgeport voters is crucial if he hopes to keep his seat.

“Bridgeport is the largest city in Connecticut and the largest city in my district, so it’s very important just in terms of sheer numbers,” says Himes. “And it’s important in terms of Democratic turnout. It can offset some towns that are not.”

So Democrats are encouraged by Obama’s decision to make a campaign stop in Bridgeport Saturday, three days before the election.

“We needed something to get people in the city motivated to vote,” says Mario Testo, Bridgeport’s Democratic Town Chairman. “President Obama is just the person to do that.”

Obama’s approval ratings have gone down nationally, says Rose, but they remain high in urban areas. “And among African Americans and Latinos, they’re still quite respectable.”

The visit is a boost for Himes, who’s running a tight race against Republican state Sen. Dan Debicella. It’s also a windfall for Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Dan Malloy, running for U.S. Senate and governor respectively.

The Himes campaign has focused much of its attention on the Bridgeport – his headquarters are based there and he’s often spotted in the city, door knocking, giving awards, even touting federal funding.

But he also has a pointed strategy there. “We’re just trying to make the case that under Dan Debicella, Bridgeport, which has an awful lot of social services funded by the government, is going to be badly hurt,” he says.

For Debicella, Bridgeport doesn’t factor highly – his support will likely come from the suburbs. And his camp has focused largely on other cities in the district.

“We have done campaigning in Bridgeport, but we’ve targeted areas like Blackrock, and the north end, you know that’s where my family is from originally, places where I have a connection,” he says, listing off the more conservative bits of the city. “But like I’ve said before, I’m under no illusion that we’re going to win Bridgeport. It’s a Democratic city.”

Debicella grew up in Shelton, which he represents in Hartford, but he was born in Bridgeport and says he has deep roots there.

“I think we’re going to come a lot closer than Chris Shays did two years ago because of my ties to the city.”

As for the upcoming visit, Debicella is unimpressed. “I think it’s to be expected,” he says. “Himes has voted 94% with the president, so the president’s coming in to support someone who’s supporting his agenda.”

And Debicella says he’s not by any means pulling for low voter turnout in Bridgeport. “I hope there’s high voter turnout at the end of the day,” he says. “The more people who vote the better it is in general.”

But the Republican could benefit from low voter turnout in Bridgeport.

“If it’s low, it favors Debicella,” says Rose. “If high, it favors Himes.”

Such a mixed, largely low-income community is likely to see lower voter turnout than other regions in the state, says Dr. Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project at George Mason University, especially compared to the 2008 elections. “Midterm electorates tend to be white, better educated, a little higher income, and slightly more Republican,” says McDonald.

“Sometimes the Democrats can overcome the midterm blues, but there’s a wave towards Republicans this election,” he says.

And Himes’ campaign doesn’t expect the same level of turnout as 2008. “That was unique,” he admits. “But we need to avoid turnout levels that we saw in other non-presidential years.”

Voter turnout in Bridgeport in 2006 was half of what it was in 2008.

Obama already has been in Connecticut this election season, for fundraisers in Stamford and Greenwich. Although the trip was a financial success–Obama helped raise an estimated $400,000 for Blumenthal and state Democrats and about $1 million for the national party–there was no public appearance to rally voters.

How did Connecticut Democrats get Obama to agree to the crucial visit?

“A lot of lobbying,” says Himes. “I relentlessly made the point that he’s got to come and connect not just with the people who are writing checks but with the people whose felt their lives change when he was elected.”

Those efforts were rewarded, and the visit could make a difference.

“Other presidents have visited Bridgeport in the past, John F. Kennedy and Clinton, and people still talk about it. It makes quite an impression,” Himes says. “And I think the president’s message to Bridgeport is going to be that civic responsibility is not a one-off. It’s an ongoing commitment.”