One of the Obama campaign’s main electability argument has long been its ability to register new voters and draw them to the polls. After all, while Democrats have worked on increasing the number of voters in past elections, they haven’t always been as successful in bringing all their new registrants out on Election Day. In 2008, however, the enthusiasm gap between the two parties promises to be damaging enough for the GOP, but the turnout differential could become truly worrisome if the Obama campaign succeeds in its large-scale registration efforts.
In particular, Obama’s Southern strategy rests on his success at registering thousands of new black voters in order to significantly increase the proportion of the black vote. Until recently, we have had few indications of what impact the Democrats’ registration efforts have been having (after all, they will continue through the summer and into September), and it has been difficult to assess the state of the race in places like North Carolina, Georgia and even Virginia. And this also impacts the reliability of polls: Different polling outlets are relying on different turnout models and, given the degree of racial polarization in Southern states, a difference of a few percentage points in the sample’s racial make-up can make a big difference.
Now, we are starting to get a few indications. In North Carolina, for instance, (and I’m sure the abnormally large number of Campaign Diaries readers who live in NC will weigh in on this!) the number of black registered voters has increased 9,8% since 2004 while the number of whites has increased by 4.6% - though there are more new white voters than new black voters. But the following graph, provided by Politico’s Ben Smith, sums up the Democrats’ registration machine over the past month. It is a graph of Wake County - home of Raleigh - a mostly white and Democratic area of North Carolina.
Check how stable the number of Republican registrants is and compare that to the two huge spikes in Democratic and unaffiliated registrants. You will notice that the first significant spike comes in the run-up to the May 6th primary, and the second spike is an ongoing on, spanning the past few weeks: It is the direct results of the Obama campaign’s efforts to add new voters to the North Carolina voter rolls. In fact, 4000 new black voters were registered since early July alone - and 12,000 new Democratic and unaffiliated voters total. Over the past four years in Wake County, GOP registration has dropped from 36% to 32%. Wake County will not by itself shift the election, but it could at least guarantee that Obama posts significant gains compared to Kerry (who lost the county by 8,000 votes).
In Virginia, which is an even more crucial battleground state, a new Washington Post article gives us some numbers. The Obama campaign estimates it registered 142,000 new voters by the end of primary season and is aiming at 150,000 more. The campaign is also hoping to get 75% of these voters to the polls (with a projection that 80% would vote for Obama) - and if those numbers hold true it could give Obama a boost of more than 150,000 voters. That would perhaps not be enough to close the 2004 gap - but Obama has a lot of other things going for him in Virginia, and in a close election that would certainly make a huge difference. In June and July, the campaign reached nearly half of its goal - and has two more months (until early October) to continue registering.
In the face of this potentially overwhelming influx of new voters (it certainly proved too much for Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to handle in Iowa), the GOP is back to its 2004 strategy: contest voter registration, hint at fraud and try to cut the Democrats’ gains. A new Wall Street Journal piece is sure to spark controversy this week, as it reveals that Republicans are dispatching teams of lawyers to “comb through” voter registration applications to find irregularities and signs of fraud. In short, these lawyers are dispatched to get any application that could be invalidated thrown out. It looks like the GOP wants to concentrate on Virginia and Pennsylvania, one of the states in which Democrats have posted some huge registration gains. The Obama campaign is setting up its own legal team, in what appears to be a repeat of the 2004 campaign, when GOP poll watchers barred Ohio voters from casting their ballots.
Note, finally, that the Democrats’ registration gains in Pennsylvania and North Carolina - two of the states in which their gains have been the strongest over the past few months - are largely due to the extended Democratic primary. Obama deployed a tremendous army of volunteers in both of these states in the weeks leading up to their respective elections (PA had a closed primary, making it important to register voters as Democrats) and that organization will be tremendously beneficial to him on November 4th.
While the length of his showdown with Clinton had clear drawbacks, it also was a huge opportunity and Obama looks to have made the most of it - as I had suggested on February 23rd: “In fact, Obama should perhaps prefer Clinton winning tight races in OH and TX (keeping her alive without giving her that much momentum) to winning himself! A 6 week long campaign in Pennsylvania could go a long way towards locking that state in the Democratic column come November.”