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New Voters’ Impact Debated

Times Staff Writer

The registration of millions of new voters across the nation has raised the prospect of a surge of first-time voters on election day, but it remains hotly disputed whether their ballots will alter the outcome of the presidential election.

This year’s increase in new registrants appears driven by voters’ increasing sense that the stakes are high in the Nov. 2 contest -- following a historically tight 2000 presidential race, a controversial war and a polarizing presidency.

The deluge of new registrations -- abetted by the candidates, parties and independent political groups -- has been so great in some states that election officials say they will need every day before the election to assemble voter rolls. In hotly contested Iowa and Missouri, only a tiny fraction of eligible citizens remains unregistered. The ultimate battleground four years ago, Florida, has seen a net gain of 1.5 million registrants -- a four-year increase of nearly 18% that brings the total of the state’s voting rolls to 10.3 million.

Both parties have gained ground in most of the hard-fought states that are expected to determine November’s winner, but in most states where figures are available, it is nonpartisan voters who have recorded the largest increases.

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The political significance of the new registrations remains unclear, however, because some of the biggest growth has been in independent voters and because party loyalties remain unknown in two critical Midwest swing states -- Ohio and Wisconsin.

Nationwide, at least two polls in the last week showed that newly registered voters favored Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry by double-digit margins. The Massachusetts senator holds an even greater lead, the polls found, among voters 29 and younger, many of whom will be voting for the first time.

Democratic strategists cautiously postulate that there exists an even greater Kerry vote “hidden” among young and new voters whom pollsters aren’t reaching. But, in an interview, President Bush’s campaign manager dismissed many of the opposition’s registration gains as inflated.

It has been a truism of U.S. politics for generations that new and young voters tend to diminish in significance when it comes time to go to the polls. The percentage of young registered voters who actually cast ballots has slipped steadily in recent times. It hit a low in 2000, when just 15% of the electorate was 29 or younger, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll.

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Asked about the chances that newly registered voters would prove key to winning an election, Democratic political strategist James Carville once said: “You know what they call a candidate who’s counting on a lot of new voters? A loser.”

Yet this year’s campaign has played out against a backdrop of unparalleled events, most obviously the 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war in Iraq.

It also follows a 2000 election in which voters learned that their ballots really could decide who won the presidency. Aside from the nationally spotlighted Florida contest four years ago, margins of a few hundred or few thousand votes determined the outcome in Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin.

“This is the most emotional election we have had since 1968,” when the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were roiling the nation, said Curtis Gans, director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. “The war in Iraq is a lightning rod. George Bush is a lightning rod.”

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The strong feelings on both sides were much in evidence last week among voters who said they would be voting for the first time in many years -- or for the first time, period.

“I never thought that my vote would count,” said Dana Waelde, 22, who manages a coffee shop in Pittsburgh. “It’s very important that Bush is not our president. I don’t see how a man like him can represent our country. He lied to us [about the justification for the Iraq war]. We were all fooled.”

Mike Demoen, a jet engine mechanic from Henderson, Nev., has just as strong a feeling that Bush is the right man for his time.

“He’s stronger on what the principles of America really are,” Demoen, 35, said last week, after voting at an early-balloting center. “Seeking counsel from the U.N. [on issues such as the invasion of Iraq] is outdated and wrong. I think America should stand on its own.”

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Some voters in 2000 complained that they could find little difference between Bush and his Democratic foe, then-Vice President Al Gore. That lament is mostly absent this time around.

“The interest level is higher because of the polarization,” said Brian Sanderoff, a pollster based in New Mexico, one the narrowing number of battleground states. “Even young people now see a real difference among the candidates. Because of that and the war, people have strong feelings one way or the other.”

But just which new voters will show up on election day? No one knows for sure, and until election day, any projections will be little more than guesswork.

Those who have been registering voters say that young people have been signing up in large numbers, creating the potential for a notable increase in their turnout.

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MTV’s Rock the Vote and other youth-oriented registration campaigns for years have promised greater voting by young people, but such predictions almost always have not panned out. This time they might, some experts say.

Gans predicted that turnout by 18- to 24-year-old voters would reach or exceed the 40.7% level it did in 1992, when the candidacy of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and billionaire independent Ross Perot galvanized many young people. By contrast, the 2000 election saw only 32.9% of eligible voters in that age group go to the polls.

Some analysts think that it’s more than weighty issues of war and jobs that have engaged 20-somethings this year.

Jack Doppelt, a Northwestern University journalism professor and co-author of the 1999 book “Nonvoters: America’s No-Shows,” thinks many young voters will turn out because of the “entertainment part of the common brain.”

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Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” the Michael Moore film “Fahrenheit 9/11" and musical tours such as Rock Against Bush have made this year’s campaign part of the cultural currency for young people more than at any time in the recent past, Doppelt said.

“My sense is that the buzz is strong enough, and that part of it is that you truly shouldn’t remain on the sidelines,” Doppelt said.

Surveys show that registered voters younger than 30 lean toward Kerry -- by as much as 19 percentage points, according to an ABC News poll late last week. Some analysts have joined Democratic partisans in suggesting that Kerry’s margin among this age group could be even larger. In their opinion, many of these voters go undetected because they own cellphones and not land-line telephones, and thus are not contacted by major polling organizations that rely on phone book listings.

A New York-based television consulting firm randomly questioned 1,225 voters over the Internet and concluded that “cell-only” voters favored Kerry by 53% to 38%.

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But the directors of the nation’s top polling organizations say that the cell-only demographic is not yet large enough to make a difference in the findings of their surveys. They cite research for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed only 3.6% of U.S. households were cell-only in 2003, a figure that peaked at 6.8% among 18- to 24-year-olds.

The voting behavior of such a small group would have to be radically different from the rest of the population to substantially tilt the election’s results, said Gary Langer, ABC News polling director.

“When we adjust our likely voter models to let more of these young people into the sample, it does not affect our overall estimate,” the ABC polling website concluded. “There aren’t enough of them, and they aren’t different enough” in their preferences.

As the presidential campaign reaches its final days, at least 10 states appear headed for close finishes. As a result, voter registration figures in those states are receiving extra attention.

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The numbers are subject to varying interpretations.

In Florida, Republicans added 462,254 voters over the last four years, 4,000 more than Democrats. But Democrats still hold a 3.6% registration edge in the state.

More significantly, the ranks of independent, or undeclared, voters grew more than those of either of the major parties, with more than half a million additional Floridians declining to name a party, compared with four years ago.

Ken Mehlman, national campaign manager for Bush, contended that in many cases, new Democratic registrants already were on the rolls, whereas Republicans had scored “real” gains.

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Kerry campaign pollster Mark Mellman scoffed at that suggestion. He also argued that the growth among independent voters was more likely to help Kerry, with multiple polls showing nonpartisan voters favoring the Democrat.

In the two other biggest battlegrounds, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the winner of the registration battle remains muddled. Although the addition of 85,000 mostly Democratic voters in Philadelphia was a boon to Kerry, registrations in the rest of the state won’t be totaled until later this week.

Ohio voters don’t specify a party when they register. And each side is insisting they’ve made large gains in new voters in their strongholds in the state.

The picture seems clearer in some smaller contested states.

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In New Mexico, Democrats extended their registration advantage over Republicans to about 19 percentage points. But as in Florida, the largest gains were among independents, 14% of the state’s electorate.

In Iowa, Republicans retained their registration lead, but by little more than 8,000, instead of the 22,000 lead they held in 2000. Independents easily outnumber both parties in the Hawkeye State, totaling more than 39% of registered voters.

In Nevada, Republicans slightly widened the lead they had over Democrats in 2000; their edge is now just under 4,500, compared with less than 2,000 four years ago.

Republicans gained the clearest advantage in Colorado, where their increase outstripped the Democrats by more than 20,000, leaving the GOP with a nearly 6-percentage-point registration advantage.

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Registration margins suggest possible openings, but both sides acknowledged that the key would be delivering their new voters to the polls.

Republicans are relying on a tightly structured, centralized operation. For months, precinct captains have been striving to meet goals set by the national campaign for voter contacts, the mailing of absentee ballot applications and other activities aimed at boosting turnout.

“We have reported and made good measurements in each of those areas,” Mehlman said. “My level of confidence is based on objective measurements of the progress we are making.”

True to their party history, Democrats are counting on a more diffuse approach, with separate get-out-the-vote efforts run by environmentalists, labor, the party and, in a new twist this year, liberal political groups such as America Coming Together.

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Like the Republicans, the Democratic groups claim their effort will be unprecedented in scale and will include paid canvassers along with the usual armies of volunteers. America Coming Together workers who registered large numbers of new voters in swing states have committed to reach each of those new voters five times to push them to the polls.

More evidence of high voter interest in this year’s election came in recent days, when long lines formed at early-voting locations in Florida and other states.

County officials were skeptical when a young voter registration worker asked them to put an early voting station at Drake University in Des Moines.

Michael Mauro, Polk County commissioner of elections, bet a student activist a dinner that fewer than 100 students would show up one day last week. He lost his bet when about 500 students cast ballots.

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Mauro might have been speaking for colleagues across the country when he said: “There are record numbers all across the board here in our state. Everything is bigger this year.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Voter registration figures in key states

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The major political parties and several independent groups have made a big push to register new voters since the 2000 election. New voters could make a difference, as this year’s race looks as if it is also coming down to the wire in a few key states.

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State (electoral votes): Florida (27)

Registered Democrats: 4,261,249 (41.4%)

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Registered Republicans: 3,892,492 (37.8%)

Unaffiliated voters: 1,886,013 (18.3%)

Total registered voters: 10,301,290

Increase in registered voters since 2000: 1,548,573 (17.7%)

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Largest increase*: U 532,582 (39.3%)

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State (electoral votes): Colorado (9)

Registered Democrats: 936,496 (30.6%)

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Registered Republicans: 1,114,576 (36.4%)

Unaffiliated voters: 1,001,752 (32.7%)

Total registered voters: 3,065,227

Increase in registered voters since 2000: 181,289 (6.3%)

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Largest increase*: R 92,557 (9.0%)

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State (electoral votes): Iowa (7)

Registered Democrats: 624,139 (30.2%)

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Registered Republicans: 632,355 (30.6%)

Unaffiliated voters: 807,847 (39.1%)

Total registered voters: 2,064,423

Increase in registered voters since 2000: 129,944 (6.7%)

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Largest increase*: U 92,040 (12.9%)

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State (electoral votes): New Mexico (5)

Registered Democrats: 534,794 (50.6%)

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Registered Republicans: 339,926 (32.2%)

Unaffiliated voters: 151,977 (14.4%)

Total registered voters: 1,056,118

Increase in registered voters since 2000: 82,585 (8.5%)

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Largest increase*: U 35,864 (30.9%)

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State (electoral votes): Nevada (5)

Registered Democrats: 429,808 (40.1%)

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Registered Republicans: 434,239 (40.5%)

Unaffiliated voters: 161,620 (15.0%)

Total registered voters: 1,071,101

Increase in registered voters since 2000: 125,120 (13.2%)

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Largest increase*: R 60,043 (16.0%)

Graphics reporting by James Rainey

*Party designation that made the biggest gain since the 2000 election. R-Republican, D-Democratic, U-Unaffiliated/no party stated.

Note: Voter registration figures in some battleground states, including Wisconsin and New Hampshire, will not be available until election day. Pennsylvania figures are expected this week. Ohio voters do not register by party.

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Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, Maria L. La Ganga and John M. Glionna contributed to this report.


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