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.
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.
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."
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."
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.