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.
“I think the numbers are going to be astonishing,” said Florida state Rep. Joseph A. Gibbons, who heads the state’s black legislative caucus and has been discussing the strategy with leading Democrats.
John Bellows, a database expert in the Obama campaign, said he had already identified “big pockets of potential voters” in key states. “There are pretty big numbers lying around to turn out,” he said.
The strategy requires a deft touch and carries risks, however.
In large part, Obama, an Illinois senator who is the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, has succeeded so far by appealing across racial lines. Strategists say he cannot afford to appear to be exploiting race or running solely as a black candidate -- particularly as he courts moderate whites and blue-collar workers who did not support him in the primaries.
“It’s a sensitivity,” said Ronald Walters, a strategist for African American Democrat Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in the 1980s. Walters has criticized Democratic candidates in the past as sidelining black voters by ceding the South to Republicans. “You’ve got to have a black strategy, but it has to be a biracial strategy.”
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.
That enables Obama’s campaign to mobilize black voters while shielding him from being portrayed as the black candidate, supporters say. “No community can complain of being shortchanged,” said Virginia Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, who in 1989 became the nation’s first African American elected governor.
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.
“This will be a completely new precedent,” said Bositis. “This year we’re going to be looking at record territory, and this will be a level of black turnout that’s never been seen before.”
The pursuit of black voters is part of the Obama campaign’s broader strategy of targeting constituencies that have been underrepresented in past general elections but that proved crucial to his victory over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in their battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
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.
What makes the idea of bringing in so many new voters more than just political fantasy is the Obama campaign’s deep pockets and the sophisticated apparatus it has begun building to achieve its goals -- using techniques to ferret out and mobilize potential supporters that only a few years ago were the secret weapons of Republican strategists and their ideological allies.
Four years ago, it was President Bush’s campaign that used microtargeting to scope out sympathetic African Americans, helping Bush win 16% of that vote in Ohio, up from 9% in 2000. Republican strategists believe the black vote in Ohio provided Bush the cushion he needed to avoid a 2000-style recount battle there. This time, not only are more African Americans expected to turn out, but Obama aides believe he will win more than 90% of those who do.
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.”
In Florida, hundreds of campaign “fellows” have signed on to canvass targeted neighborhoods throughout the summer. Similar efforts are underway in Virginia, where campaign workers have been dispatched to parking lots, bus stops and grocery stores in heavily Democratic areas.
“It’s safe to say that we could come close to registering enough to make up the difference” in 2004 between Bush and Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.). Bush won Virginia by about 260,000 votes.
In addition, a coalition of liberal advocacy groups, led by the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is trying to register 1.2 million voters -- with a special emphasis on blacks.
While the NAACP is nonpartisan and its officials say their efforts to register new voters are not specifically designed to help Obama, they say there is an added excitement among potential new voters.
“Hope is at an all-time high, and when hope is raised, people are moved to action,” said Sybil Edwards-McNabb, president of the Ohio NAACP.