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New registrations favor Democrats

CAMPAIGN '08

It's the last day for new voters to get on the rolls in several key states. Some elections offices are inundated.

October 06, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For months, Barack Obama's presidential campaign said it would capture traditionally Republican states this fall by registering more African Americans, younger Americans and other voters, in essence reshaping the electorate. Now, the results of that ambitious effort are coming into view.

Today is the deadline for new voters to register in many of the battleground states that will probably decide the election, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Indiana and Colorado. In some of these states, Obama and his allies have added substantial numbers of Democrats to the voting rolls.

As the balloting approaches, voter interest has reached a level that is leaving some state elections offices strained. Nancy Rodrigues, chief elections officer for Virginia, said she had recruited scores of volunteers just to answer phones. One day last week, her office was inundated with 8,000 calls.

"We're feeling a little overwhelmed. Thirty people divided into 8,000 calls -- do the math," she said.

Leading up to today's deadlines, Obama and Republican John McCain have been using celebrity supporters to entice people to register. Two former members of the Cincinnati Bengals, Coach Sam Wyche and offensive lineman Anthony Munoz, stumped for McCain last week in Ohio.

Not to be outdone, Obama trotted out the Boss. Bruce Springsteen gave concerts over the weekend in the electoral-vote-rich states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"We need somebody to lead us in an American reclamation project," Springsteen told the tens of thousands of people who came out for the concert Saturday in Philadelphia, amid renditions of "Thunder Road" and "The Rising."

Some states allow new voters to register until late October; California's deadline is Oct. 20.

A look at the voter registration numbers in some battleground states suggests trends that appear to favor Obama.

Virginia, for example, has logged more than 300,000 new voters since the year began. The state does not record party affiliation, but it says that 41% of the new registrants are under the age of 25, and an additional 20% are between the ages of 25 and 34.

The influx of young voters, a core part of Obama's voting coalition, is an encouraging sign for the Democratic nominee in a state that has not picked a Democrat for president in more than 40 years.

"This is exactly what we needed to do to change the electorate in Virginia in order to put Sen. Obama in a position where he could win the state," said Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager.

In Nevada, another Republican state that Obama is trying to move into the Democratic column, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 80,000, according to figures posted by the state in September, before the voter registration deadline last Saturday. Four years ago, Republicans held a registration edge of 4,431.

Democratic registration has ballooned in Pennsylvania, presenting a challenge to Republicans who hoped to swing the state to their column. Obama's party now outnumbers Republicans by nearly 1.15 million registered voters. In the 2004 election, the margin was about 580,000; in 2000, it was 486,000.

Registration numbers may help guide campaign strategy in the sprint to election day. For example, Obama's camp has said that if it does not meet registration targets in certain states, it may not compete there as aggressively.

Georgia may be one of those cases. Obama aides say the campaign has 53 paid staff in Georgia, down from at least 75 last month and more than 100 at an earlier stage.

"If we're not achieving the kind of numbers we're trying to achieve, and we don't think it's winnable at that point, it's definitely going to affect our advertising, staffing and everything else," Hildebrand said.

McCain campaign aides caution that too much can be made of raw voter registration numbers.

Consider Florida: In 2004, President Bush won the state by more than 381,000 votes, even though Republicans trailed in the voter registration count that year by nearly 368,000.

Obama is working the state hard. Wednesday, as students lined up by the hundreds to see former President Clinton speak at the University of Central Florida, Obama volunteers scanned them one by one, making sure they were registered.

Obama has made gains; the Democrats' lead in voter registration has grown by 130,000 since 2004. Still, that may not be enough. The share of Florida voters aligning with each party is about the same.

About 41% of Florida voters are registered as Democrats, the same as four years ago, while the portion who are Republicans has dropped 1 percentage point, to 37%.

In the end, Republican officials point out, victory hinges not on how many voters each campaign registers but on which campaign gets more of its voters to the polls.

"Florida Republicans have traditionally been more effective than Democrats at getting voters to the polls, and this year will be no different," said Erin VanSickle, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party.

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