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Obama may benefit from registration gains

As the deadline for voter registration arrives today in many states, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign could benefit from newcomers to the rolls in key states in numbers that outweigh Republican gains.
Image: College students register to vote
Brett Chikowski registers to vote during a rally for Barack Obama at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., on April 10.Chuck Burton / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As the deadline for voter registration arrives today in many states, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign is poised to benefit from a wave of newcomers to the rolls in key states in numbers that far outweigh any gains made by Republicans.

In the past year, the rolls have expanded by about 4 million voters in a dozen key states -- 11 Obama targets that were carried by George W. Bush in 2004 (Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico) plus Pennsylvania, the largest state carried by Sen. John F. Kerry that Sen. John McCain is targeting.

In Florida, Democratic registration gains this year are more than double those made by Republicans; in Colorado and Nevada the ratio is 4 to 1, and in North Carolina it is 6 to 1. Even in states with nonpartisan registration, the trend is clear -- of the 310,000 new voters in Virginia, a disproportionate share live in Democratic strongholds.

Republicans acknowledge the challenge but say Obama still has to prove he can get the new voters to the polls.

"The machine that has been put in place by the Democrats is effective. They have a lot of people holding clipboards," said Brian K. Krolicki (R) , the lieutenant governor of Nevada. But he added: "There's a difference between successful registration and a groundswell. It's mechanics versus momentum."

Campaign stressed registration from outset
The Obama campaign says it expects the numbers of new voters in swing states to swell even more later this month as elections offices process the tens of thousands of registrations still pouring in. And it exudes confidence about its ability to turn the new voters out with a vigorous follow-up operation. "This a lesson we learned. The old-fashioned way of registering voters was to stand on the corner of the street, stand on the campus quad and register one by one, which we still do," said Jon Carson, the campaign's national field director. "But another important component is getting people the information they need to participate."

Obama, who led a major voter drive in Chicago in 1992, has stressed voter registration from the outset of his campaign, seeing younger or disaffected Americans as a crucial pool of support. The campaign intensified its outreach over the summer, dispatching hundreds of staff members and volunteers to states with large percentages of unregistered voters.

Complementing its efforts are organizations that have been registering hundreds of thousands on their own, such as Democracia USA, which registers Hispanic voters; ACORN, the anti-poverty group; and Women's Voices, Women Vote, which targets unmarried women. More generally, this year's registration tilt is part of a broader shift since 2004 away from Republican affiliation, particularly among younger and Hispanic voters and among college-educated professionals in former GOP strongholds such as New Hampshire, Colorado, and the suburbs of Philadelphia and Northern Virginia.

Growing edge in Florida
In Florida, 800,000 voters have been added to the rolls this year, fewer than were added in 2004. The secretary of state's office attributes the drop to registration efforts reaching a saturation point and to the slowing of the state's population growth since 2004.

But the Democratic edge is still more apparent than it was in 2004, when Republicans made a big push to register evangelical Christians in the state. As of Sept. 1, the most recent date for which new registrations are divided by party, Democratic rolls were up by 316,000 and GOP rolls by 129,000 this year. The GOP figure falls short of the gain of 155,000 among independents.

This year's additions expanded the Democrats' registration edge in Florida to half a million voters, a gap expected to grow by Election Day as the thousands of voters who have signed up since Sept. 1 are added to the party totals.

The ratio is more lopsided in North Carolina, where Democrats have added 208,000 voters this year. The 34,000 voters the Republicans have added lags well behind the 148,000 new independents. Four years ago, when Bush won the state with 56 percent of the vote, the picture was different -- Democrats added 192,000 voters during all of 2004, but Republicans nearly matched them with 179,000 new voters of their own.

A disproportionate share of the new voters in North Carolina are minorities. At the start of the year, white voters in the state outnumbered blacks by nearly 4 to 1, and Hispanic voters by 10 to 1. Yet the 146,000 black and Hispanic voters added to the rolls represented nearly three-quarters of the growth among white voters.

Gary Pearce, a Democratic political consultant in North Carolina, said the gap in new registrations is a big reason he thinks Democrats have a chance of carrying the state for the first time since 1976. "It's huge. You talk about a surge -- we think we're going to see it here," Pearce said.

Primary battle seen as key
Many of the registration gains in North Carolina and elsewhere came during the nominating battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. While resulting in a long and costly primary season, it also helped draw voters onto the Democratic rolls.

In Nevada, site of a highly competitive Democratic caucus in late January, the party has this year added 91,000 people to the rolls in a state that Bush carried by 21,000 votes in 2004. Republicans added 22,000 voters, while 26,000 independents have been added. Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the Silver State at the start of 2007, but registered Republicans now trail Democrats by 81,000.

The primaries produced an even bigger boost in Pennsylvania. In addition to several hundred thousand new voters registered as Democrats, tens of thousands of independent voters and Republicans switched their affiliation to vote for Obama or Clinton.

Some of them may vote for McCain, but the numbers are nonetheless eye-catching. This year, 474,000 Democrats have been added to the rolls in Pennsylvania -- while the GOP rolls have actually lost 38,000 voters. In 2004, there were 357,000 Democrats added and 66,000 Republicans.

In Virginia, where Obama volunteers have been a constant presence at Metro stations and grocery stores in Democratic areas, there are 310,000 more voters than at year's start. That compares with 210,000 new voters over the same stretch in 2004.

Although voters do not register by party in Virginia, there have been increases of 10 percent, or close to it, in the Democratic strongholds of Arlington County, Alexandria, Norfolk, Newport News and Richmond, which combined have added 58,000 voters. Similarly, in Missouri, where registration is also nonpartisan, an outsized share of the roughly 200,000 new registrations this year have been in greater St. Louis -- suburban St. Louis County, which now leans Democratic, is close to having one-fifth of the state's voters.

In Colorado, which Bush won by 100,000 votes in 2004, Republicans were well in the lead for registrations at the start of the year but are now on the verge of being overtaken. By Sept. 1, Democratic registration was up by 80,000, partly because of the Democrats-only caucuses in February. That far exceeds the gain of 28,000 unaffiliated voters and 21,000 Republicans. In New Mexico, which Bush won by 6,000 votes in 2004, Democrats have added 40,000 voters since last year, compared with 12,000 Republicans.

Voter drives have been a lower priority in states with less growth and turnover. Michigan has registered an increase of 160,000 voters this year, small for a state its size and less than what it recorded in 2004. Ohio, the scene of such intensive organizing in years past, has seen roughly the same growth in new voters as in 2004 (it does not break down registrations by party). Indiana's growth has been roughly equal to that of 2004; in Wisconsin, voters can register on Election Day.

In several states, registration gains may not be enough for Obama. His campaign deployed dozens of staffers to Georgia, with an emphasis on seeking out the estimated half-million eligible African Americans there who do not vote. Volunteers from across the country spent hours in the summer heat at bus stations and in housing projects in small cities such as Macon and Columbus, and as of Sept. 1, the state's rolls had grown by 350,000 voters, surpassing the gain of 270,000 for all of 2004. But last month, the campaign began pulling staffers out of Georgia, deciding the gap was too wide in a state that Bush won with 58 percent in 2004.

Nonprofits still active
Obama's investment in voter registration has taken some of the burden off the nonprofit groups that did much of that work in 2004, but they are still active. The groups are not allowed to coordinate with the campaign, but they try to target separate areas to avoid overlap.

In Florida, a network of most of the nonprofit groups doing registration work estimates that it has registered about 440,000 of the 800,000 voters added in the state this year, said Bob Schaeffer, a network coordinator.

The Obama campaign predicts that 80 percent of the voters it is registering will support the Democrat, and that 75 percent will turn out, a rate it bases on turnout during the primaries. That means that for every 100,000 voters it registers, it would net a 45,000-vote edge on Election Day. In Virginia, that projection would mean an extra four percentage points from this year's new voters in a state that Bush won by eight points in 2004.

Donald Green, a Yale political scientist, said history suggests turnout rates lower than 75 percent among truly newly registered voters. The Obama campaign's higher rates of turnout during the primaries may have been boosted by voters who were re-registering at a new address or under a new party, he said. "New registrants tend to vote at reasonably high rates but not very high rates," he said. "Most surge in turnout comes from already registered voters."

But Pearce, the North Carolina consultant, speculated that this year's election might shatter some of those expectations, based on the energy he is seeing and the reach of Obama's get-out-the-vote operation there. "It's the enthusiasm gap," he said. He added: "They'll get a lot of them out on Election Day. I'm not an organization guy -- I'm skeptical of the people who think the organization is going to turn it all. But they've made me a believer."