As they ponder a political map that has spelled defeat for Democrats in the last two presidential elections, Barack Obama’s campaign strategists are quietly laying plans to draw African American voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers by capitalizing on the excitement over the prospect of electing the nation’s first black president.
Obama strategists believe they have identified a gold mine of new and potentially decisive Democratic voters in at least five battleground states—voters who failed to turn out in the past but can be mobilized this time because Obama’s candidacy is historic and his cash-rich campaign can afford the costly task of identifying and motivating such supporters.
In Florida alone, more than half a million black registered voters stayed home in 2004. Hundreds of thousands more African Americans are eligible to vote but not registered. And campaign analysts have identified similar potential in North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri and Ohio.
In these five states, which were crucial to the GOP’s presidential success in 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush’s victory margins were generally slim enough to suggest that a major expansion of black turnout could lead to Democratic gains this year.
Obama’s formula for energizing blacks while appealing to whites relies in part on demonstrating independence from the more militant traditions of black politics and using rhetoric that spans race. He has opposed monetary reparations for descendants of slaves, for example. And he has said that he does not think his daughters should benefit from affirmative action, because they have had a “pretty good deal,” and he has expressed openness to programs that could help disadvantaged whites, Latinos and women.
Party strategists believe that Obama’s competitive showing in primary contests proves that the approach will work. In some primaries, notably North Carolina and Virginia, he ran strong among white voters, but his victory margins came from drawing blacks, including new African American voters, to the polls in overwhelming numbers.
Major get-out-the-vote efforts in 2004 managed to increase black voter turnout just 3 percentage points, to 60%, compared with 64% of voters overall. Obama’s campaign believes it can far surpass that this time.
David A. Bositis, an expert on black voting trends at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, predicts that turnout could rise by as much as 20%, and some Democratic strategists feel they can spur black turnout in the battleground states to as high as 75% of registered voters.
Another key target is voters of all races under 35, including college students and even high-schoolers who will be 18 by election day. In Virginia, for example, nearly 90,000 people 34 or younger have registered in recent months—and the Obama campaign is targeting many more who have not registered. Florida strategists have identified about 600,000 young Democrats with “little to no voting history,” according to an internal memo. The campaign is applying the same effort to reach unaffiliated Latinos in New Mexico and Nevada.
In a political twist, Democrats can thank a Republican for empowering one new group of voters: Florida felons. Gov. Charlie Crist last week announced that, thanks to a new rule he enacted, about 115,000 felons who had completed their sentences had become eligible under his administration to have their civil rights restored. Liberal groups such as People for the American Way hope to track down even more who could have their rights restored in time to permit them to register and vote in November.
Experts say felons are disproportionately black and, if they can be found, more likely to be Obama backers. This provides a huge potential; about 1.1 million felons in Florida were ineligible to vote in 2004, according to a 2006 book by sociologists Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen. Here too the potential for gains has risk: It could open a door for Republicans to portray Democrats as soft on crime.
The push for new and nontraditional voters is so targeted and aggressive that an NAACP official in Ohio said her organization plans to pursue individuals who are incarcerated but who have not yet been tried or sentenced and, therefore, under state law, remain eligible to vote.
The group is also tracking felons who often don’t realize that, in Ohio, they are eligible to vote as soon as they leave prison.
Ex-offenders are “just everywhere,” said Jocelyn Travis, who heads the Ohio NAACP’s voter outreach program. “People who have a felony or criminal background are throughout our community, and they don’t realize that they have the right to vote.”
Democratic strategists believe that if the Obama campaign can reach even a fraction of African Americans who have not voted in the past, it can cut dramatically into Bush’s 2004 victory margins. According to a Democratic strategy memo in Florida, where Bush won by about 381,000 votes, “encouraging just one-third of the non-2004 voters to cast a vote would alone [make up] more than half the margin.”