President Obama’s hope-and-change coalition powered his party to wins up and down the ticket in 2008, but the campaign this year has taken on a far more self-serving focus, as both Mr. Obama’s campaign and his fellow Democrats see benefits in keeping their space from each other.
From Virginia to Ohio to Arizona, the president’s 2008 magic has worn off. He never mentioned his Capitol Hill allies in his address at the Democratic National Convention and hasn’t been as focused on campaigning for them this time.
“He doesn’t have the coattails he had in ‘08,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. “President Obama doesn’t seem to like politics to me. Nixon didn’t like it either. When you’re that kind of personality, it isn’t fun.”
On the reverse side, many of his fellow Democrats — even those he essentially recruited to run — are keeping him at arm’s length. That is the case in Arizona, where former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, an independent turned Democrat, is running against Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, and where Mr. Carmona is happy not to have to worry about the president campaigning there.
“Arizona’s actually pretty insulated from the presidential campaign. That’s given us a stability, both us and the Flake campaign, to present our own message and a cleaner ability to present our own message, compared to other states,” a Carmona campaign official said.
It marks a big turnaround from 2008, when Democrats won big in down-ticket races in Arizona, even as favorite son Sen. John McCain was winning the state in the presidential election against Mr. Obama.
That year, Democrats took a 5-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, including delivering a seat to Ann Kirkpatrick, who then voted for Mr. Obama’s economic stimulus package and health care overhaul, though she bucked much of her party by opposing the bank and auto industry bailouts and by voting against a financial-regulations package.
She lost her 2010 re-election bid and is now running again, though Republicans say she is doing her best to avoid ties to Mr. Obama.
“The president is absent from any of her last two campaigns,” said Barrett Marson, a spokesman for her Republican opponent, Jonathan Pason. “You wouldn’t know who was president, and you wouldn’t know he was the leader of her party by looking at her material.”
Multiple calls to Ms. Kirkpatrick’s campaign office resulted in a message saying that the voice mail had not yet been set up, and a request for comment via email was not returned.
Neither Mr. Carmona nor Ms. Kirkpatrick has to worry about joining Mr. Obama at campaign rallies in Arizona because he is not actively campaigning there. But in states such as Ohio and Virginia, vulnerable Democrats face such challenges as Mr. Obama crisscrosses the swing states and millions of dollars’ worth of his ads blare on television and radio.
In 2008, Mr. Obama carried Virginia, the first Democrat to do so in 44 years. Democrats also managed to wrest control of the state’s congressional delegation from Republicans.
Mr. Obama’s victory also turned Ohio from red to blue and Democrats, in the process, flipped two U.S. House seats and took control of the state House for the first time since 1994. (Republicans reclaimed control in 2010.)
This year, Mr. Obama has campaigned extensively in Ohio, and regularly asks supporters to boost some fellow Democrats. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Marcy Kaptur — both firmly in their party’s liberal wing — have received the most mentions from Mr. Obama at recent events.
The Ohio Democratic Party didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is trying to extend his own coattails, regularly asking for support for his party’s congressional candidates.
“All those down-ticket folks are mentioned, and thanked, just as they were in 2008,” said Matt Henderson, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party. “In terms of ‘Does it help them?’ The people are coming to these rallies to hear Mitt Romney. Of course it’s going to help, but so does having an ‘R’ next to your name on the ballot.”
Weakened in New England
That’s not the case in the liberal states of the Northeast, even though Mr. Romney’s highest political office was as governor of Massachusetts.
Though Sen. Scott P. Brown, Massachusetts Republican, endorsed Mr. Romney, he barely mentions his state’s ex-governor on the campaign trail, opting instead to tout his own record as “the second most bipartisan member of the Senate.”
Republican Linda McMahon, running again for a Senate seat in Connecticut, recently cut an ad featuring people who are voting for her — as well as Mr. Obama.
“The terrain the candidate operates on defines the kind of campaign they run,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Some candidates, though, will have a tougher time distancing themselves from the top of their ticket.
In Virginia, former Gov. Tim Kaine served as the president’s hand-picked chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2011 and spoke with Mr. Obama before deciding to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Webb.
Mr. Kaine has tried to stake out some differences between himself and Mr. Obama, but there is not much distance between the two in the polls: The latest Real Clear Politics average has Mr. Obama tied with Mr. Romney in Virginia and Mr. Kaine ahead by 2 points against Republican George Allen.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kaine has taken umbrage with the way his opposition often tries to frame the connection.
“One day I was driving down Interstate 95, and I saw a big billboard with a picture of me and President Obama on it, and the billboard said, ‘Tim Kaine: Obama’s senator, not Virginia’s,’” Mr. Kaine said.
“Now, I liked being called senator before the election, so that was good. But the implication of the billboard was it is anti-Virginian for me, and that I’m somehow anti-Virginian, because I support the president of the United States. I am a supporter, and I am a friend of the president of the United States, and I want him to be re-elected. But whether somebody wants the president to be re-elected or not, let there be no mistake: It is not anti-Virginian to support the president of the United States,” he said.