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Obama's Play for Indian Country

Barack Obama has vowed to expand the electoral map for the Dems. Turning out the politically neglected Native American vote may be the key to doing so.

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

If Barack Obama wins New Mexico on November 4, he may want to thank Wizipan Garriott, the vote director of what the Obama campaign calls its "First Americans" voter outreach program. The effort targets the politically neglected but heavily Democratic Native American vote, which Obama strategists believe could be critical to putting some historically red states into play for Obama.

The Obama campaign is reluctant to discuss the details of its ground game, but it's clear the campaign's Native American outreach strategy is extensive. The campaign has two Chicago-based staffers devoted to coordinating the nationwide effort, and Garriott has recruited locals on reservations around the country to serve as paid organizers. Montana, Alaska, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Mexico have all been targeted at points in the campaign.

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"If you're going to compete in traditionally red states as a Democrat, if you're going to expand the electoral map, then you're going to have to compete in places where native voices are of some considerable significance," says Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation who serves as the chair of Obama's Native American Policy Committee. "From time to time has a Democratic candidate opened an office on a reservation? Yes. But we have native outreach directors in numerous states. Before, it was hit or miss, little bit here, little bit there. Right now it's a comprehensive effort."

One of Obama's signature promises during the primary was that he could expand the electoral map for Democrats. And the Obama campaign sees an opening to do so in several reliably red states in the American West that have sizable Native American populations. Native Americans make up only about 1 percent of the population in the crucial swing states of Nevada and Colorado. But they're a significant presence in North Dakota (4.8 percent) and Montana (6.4 percent). And Indian country comprises nearly 10 percent of the population of New Mexico, which George W. Bush won by only a few thousand votes in 2004.

"Within many of these western states, particularly those who have over the last couple decades elected Republicans, one of the ways in which Democrats have been competitive is to ensure that they have been responsive to tribal communities," Harper says. "Democrats who have made a concerted effort to reach out to Indian country have solidified their base."

Mary Bowannie, a lecturer in Native American studies at the University of New Mexico who teaches a course called "The Native Vote," says she's noticed the Obama campaign has placed more of an emphasis on Native American voters than past Democratic candidates. "There's really been a push to get out the vote in Native American communities," she says. "There's a lot of participation and excitement. When [John] Kerry ran, he had people on the ground, but it was very much focused on getting the tribal leadership behind them. They did have some focus on community and getting out the vote, but not as much as they have recently."

It seems that the Obama campaign may be making its move for the Indian vote at just the right time, too. George Hardeen, the communications director for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., who has endorsed Obama, says that Navajos appear to be paying more attention to politics this year than ever before: "Access to information in a place as geographically isolated as the Navajo Nation is as great as it ever has been, and that alone has moved the message in. So even traditional Navajo people like my mother-in-law, who speaks no English...she knows who Obama is, and she knows who John McCain is. They're not watching Fox and CNN, but they are forming opinions."

Next page: One race in particular exemplifies this bloc's ability to determine an election...

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