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Expand the Vote (cont’d)

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It’s not just Obama

While Obama’s drive has drawn attention for its distinctiveness among presidential contenders, focusing only on the campaign’s work neglects the crucial fieldwork that institutionalized voter registration organizations will be undertaking this cycle.

To be sure, controversy has embroiled a few high-profile operations. Last year, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) fined the now-disbanded America Coming Together $775,000 for raising contributions that violated federal limits. This cycle, the North Carolina attorney general ordered Women’s Voices, Women Vote to cease robo-calling voters with misleading messages after the primary registration date had passed.

But beyond those limited transgressions, a slew of successful organizations will ramp up their own efforts in the coming months.

Among them is Project Vote, Obama’s employer in 1992. Working in partnership with ACORN, the nation’s largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, Project Vote orchestrates comprehensive drives targeted in low-income urban communities. Organizers are trained to canvass outside of locations where residents generally congregate – grocery stores, bus stops and religious institutions.

According to Slater, Project Vote registered more than 1 million voters in each of the last two cycles. Sticking to its time-tested formula, Project Vote has set a goal of 1.2 million new registrants.

Rock the Vote, the nation’s most recognizable youth registration outfit, has made encouraging advances in online registration, a tool that hasn’t matured as quickly as online political fundraising or organizing. Partnering with consumer rights organization Working Assets, Rock the Vote devised a voter registration widget – a portable application that political organizations, bloggers or candidates can embed on their websites using a simple HTML code.

Since last July, the widget has been added to 8,500 sites, and more than 600,000 young people have downloaded registration forms.

“What we do know is that registration is the biggest barrier to young people voting,” says Rock the Vote Communications Director Chrissy Faessen, “so the more young people we can get registered, the more we can send them out to the polls.”

Combined with its robust fieldwork, Faessen estimates that Rock the Vote could enlist 2 million new voters in this cycle.

The Poblano model

If winning elections is your primary focus, as is the case for most Obama volunteers, boosting registration levels is only as valuable as the votes it produces.

“About 64 million Americans are eligible to vote but are not registered to vote,” says Slater. “That’s about one-third of the entire voting-eligible population. So the opportunity to expand the electorate is there.”

Among underrepresented constituencies, the statistics are even starker. While the voting rate for young people between ages 18 and 24 shot up 11 percentage points from 2000 to 2004, the registration rate sits at a paltry 58 percent. It’s not much better for voters of color: African Americans (69 percent), Latinos (58 percent), and Asians (52 percent) all trail non-Hispanic white voters (75 percent). (If people of color were to vote at the same percentage as whites, there would be more than 5.5 million votes.)

Considering Obama’s success with much of these segments of the electorate, boosting turnout among young people and voters of color is where the Democratic nominee is most situated to broaden his base.

The “Poblano Model” best articulates the potential benefits of targeted voter mobilization. “Poblano” is Nate Silver, a formerly anonymous 30-year-old statistician, one-time DailyKos diarist and author of the website FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver has garnered considerable notoriety with his clever regression model – an electoral simulation engine that uses state-by-state polling data and demographic variables to predict election outcomes in individual states. Using the formula in early May, the blogger correctly projected the results of the critical primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, outperforming five major national polling operations.

In mid-May, Silver turned his attention to the general election, working with the Illinois-based political website Progress Illinois (Disclosure: I’m a reporter-blogger for the site but had no hand in the article) to examine how gradual increases in turnout among certain demographic groups might affect the outcome of an Obama-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) presidential race. The results were instructive.

Consider Rock the Vote’s target audience. Silver estimates that boosting the youth vote by 25 percent nationwide would give Obama 16 additional electoral votes, mainly in the Upper Midwest (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin) where youth turnout is historically high. A jump in Latino rates could play a key factor in the Mountain West states of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, as well.

But the African-American turnout could be the key to the election. According to average head-to-head polling numbers, blacks break for Obama at a 94 percent to 6 percent clip. With each 10 percent increase in black turnout nationwide, Obama gains an average of 13 electoral votes, while his chance of winning jumps by almost 7 percentage points.

The U.S. senator from Illinois stands to gain the most in battleground Rustbelt states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as in southern states – North Carolina and Virginia among them – where Democrats have struggled at the presidential level for decades.

“There are scenarios,” Silver told ProgressIllinois.com, “where you could really have – not a landslide – but Obama winning 350-plus electoral votes … just with a mild increase in African-American turnout.”

Like all electoral estimates, Silver’s analysis should be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. Polls this early in the process aren’t reliable and the regression model has its flaws. Being young and black isn’t mutually exclusive, a crossover that the simulation fails to address. But these numbers, coupled with Silver’s track record, should strike fear into the McCain camp, whose ground game is already suffering from a resource gap with Democrats and a lack of enthusiasm among the GOP’s evangelical base.

A long fall?

The beauty of Obama’s registration drive is its universal value. Some progressive activists have raised concerns about the senator’s growing consolidation of the party apparatus, embodied in his rejection of liberal independent 527 organizations that can’t openly support a candidate but can run negative advertisements. However, voter registration outreach doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny.

“I don’t think that the Obama campaign has the capacity to replace anything that’s currently in the field,” says Slater, “nor do I think it really has the ability to undermine the effectiveness of any of the work the nonprofit sector is doing because of the size of the audience.”

Democratic candidates at the congressional and statewide levels will ultimately benefit as well: the more Democratic voters that exercise their franchise, the more races a resource-strapped GOP will have to defend.

“That’s the big wild card for Republicans,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen recently told the Washington Post. “They can’t plan on a conventional turnout scenario if Barack Obama is the nominee.”

Like many Michigan Democrats, Schwartz says that bringing new voters into the fold will keep the state in the Democratic column this fall. If supporters like her are as successful as their favored candidate was on Chicago’s South Side in 1992, McCain is in for a long fall and a cold winter.

Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.

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