Voter Surge Buoys Democrats

Kerry rises in the polls while activists register voters on the ground

By Jim Cullen

Record numbers of voter registrations in swing states give Democrats new hope they can carry John F. Kerry to victory in those key states.

The race tightened after the first presidential debate Sept. 30 in Coral Gables, Fla., as voters got their first view of Kerry vs. George W. Bush. That interchange apparently reassured voters about Kerry as it raised doubts about Bush. On the eve of the second presidential debate in St. Louis, Kerry was ahead in 13 of 16 "battleground states" polled by Zogby Interactive for the Wall Street Journal, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 5. Kerry overtook Bush in Ohio, a critical swing state where he had trailed since mid-July, and he started to pull away in Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. Bush continued to lead in Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, although Bush's only lead outside the margin of error was 6.1 points in West Virginia.

Voter registration is up in Democratic areas of swing states such as Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Election clerks had to hire extra workers in many of those areas to process registrations.

A Democratic umbrella group, America Votes, which is coordinating get-out-the-vote efforts for labor unions, trial lawyers, environmental groups and community organizations, reportedly budgeted $300 million to register and turn out voters in swing states. That sum dwarfs the $150 million in public financing the Democratic and Republican candidates together will receive for the general election campaign.

America Coming Together (ACT), one of 33 groups in the America Votes coalition, is finishing what is billed as the largest voter contact program in history. Operating in 17 battleground states, more than 1,400 ACT paid canvassers, assisted by thousands of volunteers are working precinct by precinct to build ongoing relationships with targeted voters. They expect to make more than 17 million contacts with targeted Democratic voters and have 45,000 workers getting out the vote Election Day.

Swing voters include pre-retirement women and younger voters who need extra information about issues to persuade them to vote for Kerry and Democrats in federal, state and local elections. ACT also is targeting Democratic base voters, including African Americans and Latinos, who might need extra contact to get them out to vote.

Republicans also have mounted voter registration projects, mainly in suburban areas, but the huge gains have come in areas with minority and low-income populations, where canvassers stress that the close four years ago shows that people's votes do count.

One of the Democratic volunteers is Karen McAfee, a nurse from Austin, Texas, who canvassed working-class neighborhoods in Colorado for Kerry and US Senate candidate Ken Salazar. She also canvassed in Albuquerque, N.M., for America Coming Together. "I saw lots of big dogs and burglar bars," McAfee said, but she also saw momentum pick up along with Democrats' spirits after Kerry's performance in the first presidential debate. Many who had expressed uncertainty about Kerry said the debate changed their minds.

After the Republican-funded "Swift Boat" ads cast doubts on Kerry's service, McAfee said, many of the people she talked with were surprised to learn that Kerry actually had served two tours of duty in Vietnam and had been wounded three times. Kerry's campaign ads had a lot less impact than personal contact, she said. "The important thing is to talk to them eye-to-eye, one-on-one, from somebody they trust."

21st Century Democrats, which supports progressive populist candidates, has placed over 90 organizers on 50 key US congressional races and state legislative races around the country. They have contacted more than 564,600 voters around the country so far this election season.

"We've contacted a record number of people in person and peer to peer," said 21st Century Democrats spokesman Adam Ebbin. "We feel really good about it."

A member of the America Votes coalition, 21st Century Democrats has concentrated on registering young potential voters in Oregon, Minnesota and Ohio in their "Young Voter Project." It recently expanded to Nevada, where teams are working at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "We're targeting voters up to age 34 and registering voters in targeted precincts where young people concentrate," he said. They registered 350 votes at Columbus on the eve of Ohio's registration deadline. "We believe we registered 19,000 in Ohio," he said.

The Young Voter Project has made more than 153,000 in-person contacts and recruited more than 12,000 volunteers. In Minnesota alone, the project contacted 38,000 people in person and registered 5,500 new young voters.

"The outcome of this election affects all Americans, especially young people," said Lilah Pomerance, 21st Century Democrats' Young Voter Project national director. "We are using new technology combined with traditional organizing methods to engage this crucial demographic. Potential voters are being approached in peer settings -- by phone, with text messages and emails. There are 60 million 18-34 year olds eligible to vote this November, and we will make sure they have the power to swing this election."

In Oregon, 21st Century Democrats also has endorsed six progressive Democratic candidates for the state House of Representatives. The candidates are Arnie Roblan (9th District), Jean Cowan (10th District), Betty E. Komp (22nd District), Chuck Riley (29th District), Larry Galizio (District 35), and Jim Buck (District 50). Quality education and job growth headline the Democratic candidates' platforms.

The campaigns have visited a total of more than 53,300 households in their respective districts. The Oregon State Bus Project helped Roblan and Cowan canvass Florence and the south coast and organized volunteers to walk door to door for Jim Buck. 21st Century Democrats are providing five trained grassroots organizers to assist the candidates with their voter contact.

Kelly C. Young, executive director of 21st Century Democrats, said there are two key ingredients in every winning campaign: "Campaigns need to talk directly to voters in order to be heard and they need to stand for something real to win."

Voter registration is going on in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, three important battlegrounds in the Upper Midwest. Wisconsin and Minnesota have same-day registration, allowing people to register on Election Day.

In Iowa, where voter registration continues until Oct. 23, Democrats have added 48,508 voters since the start of the year, while Republicans added 6,487, the Associated Press reported. Democrats closed to within 9,000 of the voter registration gap that Republicans have enjoyed for years in Iowa.

In Nevada, the registrar of voters in Clark County (Las Vegas) processed more than 150,000 new registrants in the state's most populous county as of Oct. 1. Democrats increased their advantage from 30,000 in 2003 to 45,000 votes, with registration continuing until Oct. 12. Democrats figure they have a statewide registration edge of more than 3,700 voters. In 2000 Gore lost Nevada by 21,593 votes.

In Ohio, temporary election workers were needed to process 230,000 new registrations in Cleveland, more than double the 2000 total, in a state Bush won in 2000 by 165,019 votes. In Columbus, the Franklin County Board of Elections has registered roughly 100,000 new voters this year, more than double the number from 2000.

In Pennsylvania, where the registration deadline was Oct. 4, the elections staff in Montgomery County (suburban Philadelphia) has been working nights and weekends since the week before Labor Day to process registrations -- some 32,000 since May, the New York Times reported. In Philadelphia, officials recorded the highest number of new voter registrations in 21 years, at 204,000, the Times reported.

While there are questions how many will actually turn out to vote, ACT registered 85,000 Philadelphia voters last year in a hard-fought mayor's race won by the Democratic incumbent. Steve Rosenthal, ACT's chief executive and former political director of the AFL-CIO, told the Times that 44% of the new registrants turned out to vote, compared with 49% overall.

Including last year's trial run, Philadelphia has added roughly 300,000 new voters to its rolls, a 35% increase in citywide registration. Chris Bowers of noted that, assuming normal turnout and voting patterns, that could increase the Democratic margin of victory in Philadelphia by more than 120,000 votes. In 2000, Gore won Pennsylvania by 204,840 votes.

In Florida, registrations in Tallahassee, Fla., are up 20% since the presidential primary. New registered voters in Miami-Dade County, Fla., grew by 65% through mid-September, compared with 2000.

In Greenbrier County, W.V., deputy clerk Gail White said she's never seen so many people register in her 10 years working elections, and despite extra staff she's still behind on processing new and absentee voters. "I get them all typed up, and the next thing I know, here comes another pile," she told the AP.

In Missouri, St. Louis is reporting the largest growth ever in potential new voters, the Times reported. The Missouri Citizen Education Fund has focused on poor, black neighborhoods in St. Louis, mid-Missouri and rural areas, and have registered 50,000 new voters so far this year. In 2000, Bush won the state by less than 80,000.

Prospects for a big Democratic turnout also raise hopes for regaining Congress. In the US Senate, where the GOP now holds a 51-48-1 advantage, Democrats figure to pick up Illinois while Republicans figure to pick up Georgia. Republicans are slightly favored to take away South Carolina while Democrats are favored to take Colorado. If Democrats hold vulnerable seats in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Dakota and pick up vulnerable GOP seats in Alaska and Oklahoma, they regain control of the Senate.

In the House, where the GOP now holds a 227-206 majority (including one D-leaning independent) and two open seats leaning GOP, the Dems need to take away 12 GOP seats to regain the majority. Chris Bowers of ranks two contests as leaning toward takeaways for the Dems and 19 contests as "toss-ups," including 14 now held by R's. A big Democratic wave could sweep out other Republican incumbents, of course.

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