Although national polls in the presidential race remain tight, Sen. John McCain is struggling to overcome an underreported factor that pollsters might not be taking fully into account: the dramatic increase in voters who identify themselves as Democrats.
In one of the few upsides to the long, divisive nominating fight between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Democrats in several battleground states spent months contacting and registering millions of new voters, previously inactive voters, even some Republicans they persuaded to switch parties.
Just in the late primary contests alone, for example, campaign volunteers enlisted 200,000 new Democrats in Pennsylvania, where their edge has more than doubled since 2000, 165,000 in North Carolina and more than 150,000 in Indiana, according to state officials.
As deadlines for voter registration start to pass, Democrats hope their efforts will help carry Obama to victory in competitive states such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, Ohio, and Florida. It might even help Democrats win traditionally hard-to-reach states with large black populations such as North Carolina, where officials expect voter participation to increase by 20 percent since 2004, and Virginia, which has added more than 280,000 voters to the rolls during the past four years.
Democrats have made big registration gains in many of the 29 states that track voters by party affiliation, including the traditional battlegrounds of Nevada and Iowa, where there now are more registered Democrats than Republicans for the first time in a decade. No states have switched to the Republicans during the same period. In six states, including Pennsylvania, Iowa, and New Hampshire, Democratic registration grew by at least 3 percent, while Republican enrollment declined.
“We feel that our supporters are more enthusiastic than we've seen in previous cycles,” Jon Carson, Obama’s national field director, recently told the Associated Press.
The Democratic effort has been well organized. On May 10, before Obama officially clinched the Democratic nomination, launched the “Vote for Change” registration drive. Using the campaign’s enormous voter database, the campaign dispatched staffers to all 50 states to train volunteers how to register voters. They are using some of the same “micro-targeting” techniques the Bush-Cheney campaign honed in 2004.
Republicans, who have run superior ground games in the past two presidential campaigns, are counting on a formidable, high-tech get-out-the-vote operation that has helped them win those races. But since 2006, Democrats have added more than 2 million voters to the rolls in the 29 states that register voters according to party affiliation. Republicans have lost nearly 344,000 voters in the same states.
Republicans caution against reading too much into their opponents’ headline-grabbing gains in registration. Many of those voters registered to participate in the historic primary between Clinton and Obama but plan to vote, as Democrats often do, for the Republican presidential nominee this fall. Party strategists also note that McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate has helped them register large numbers of female voters as Republicans during the past few weeks.
“We hope that the hard work we've done in the past will provide us with a strategic advantage,” Mike DuHaime, McCain’s political director recently, said. “We will have the most technologically advanced ground operation ever.”
Unlike McCain, Obama has a personal history of working to register voters who are likely to support him. During the 1992 campaign, in which Bill Clinton was battling then-President Bush and Democrat Carol Moseley Braun was running to be the first black woman in the Senate, Obama moved to Chicago to run the local branch of Project Vote, a D.C.-based nonpartisan voter registration organization focused in low-income communities of color. He registered more than 150,000 voters in six months.
“Republicans are having fun mocking the work Obama did as a community organizer,” said one Obama campaign aide, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak publicly for the campaign. “But that work helped him organize communities to vote. So we’ll see who has the last laugh.”
Some top Republicans have been sounding alarms. Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican who chairs the GOP’s Senate campaign committee, said during a recent interview that he told Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan that the party has neglected voter registration efforts in Nevada and elsewhere, and he urged Duncan to turn the efforts around.
“I thought they neglected voter registration, and I thought they needed to put more resources in, especially now that they’re getting those resources,” Ensign said he told Duncan. “Democrats had really increased their voter registration in Nevada. It was a mistake for us to not put the resources in. You have them now. I hope you put them in because Nevada absolutely should go for McCain, especially with Palin on the ticket now. But don’t take a chance with the voter registration numbers. I hope that you’ll put the resources in.”
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