Va. Democrats focusing on drawing African Americans and young voters to the polls


Left to right, Mary Wallace, Matilda Mitchell and Virginia Del. Mary Christian listen to Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, joined by former President Bill Clinton, at an event in Hampton, Va., on Oct. 27. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
October 30, 2013

In the final days of his race for Virginia governor against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), Terry McAuliffe and fellow Democrats are striving to draw to the polls two constituencies that often stay home for off-year contests — African Americans and young voters.

Virginia Democrats are trying to blend the latest in technology, social science and on-the-ground experience to lure those voters. They have found one of the best ways to ensure people show up is to get them to sign a card promising to vote, perhaps even at a specific time and place.

McAuliffe is trying to replicate the science of voter turnout that President Obama perfected in 2008 and 2012 — notably in Virginia. The pledge cards are part of it.

Mitch Stewart, who worked for Obama and is informally advising McAuliffe, said pledge cards were important in 2012 and they’re important now. “The impact will be even higher in an off-year election than in a presidential,” he said.

The campaign’s strategy also includes old-fashioned phone calls, mail and door-knocking; Democrats say they have knocked on the doors of nearly 300,000 African American households. They are also relying on more modern social-media techniques and targeted advertising, all designed to spur enthusiasm for a contest that traditionally doesn’t inspire much.

Their targets include people such as Julia Dumais, a 28-year-old Web developer from Woodbridge. She attended a rally Sunday in Dale City with McAuliffe and former president Bill Clinton after receiving an e-mailed invitation from the McAuliffe campaign.

But the courtship of Dumais has gone well beyond one e-mail.

“I just pretty much don’t answer the phone during election season,” Dumais said. “I get a ton of mail from both campaigns and a fair number of calls, but I usually don’t pick up.”

In recent years, turnout by African Americans and young voters has fluctuated wildly from election to election.

According to calculations of Census Bureau data by Michael P. McDonald, a George Mason University professor and expert on turnout, African American voters in Virginia turned out at a rate of 79 percent in 2008 and 44 percent in 2010. For younger voters — 18 to 28 — the turnout rates for those elections were 69 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

The same turnout data are not available for the 2009 gubernatorial election, but the exit poll that year showed that African Americans made up 16 percent of the state’s electorate and young voters 10 percent, compared with 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively, in the 2012 exit poll.

In a Washington Post/Abt-SRBI poll released Monday, 64 percent of registered voters said they were certain that they would cast ballots. Among black voters in the poll, it was 56 percent.

With McAuliffe leading in every public survey, Republicans are resting their increasingly thin hopes for Cuccinelli on the idea that the electorate next week will look more like the one four years ago. Why, Republicans wonder privately, would black voters be more motivated now than they were in November 2009 — just a year after Obama won his historic election?

Regardless of what they tell pollsters, this theory posits, African American and young Virginians mostly won’t bother to vote.

Stewart, who worked for Democrats in Virginia in 2009, as well as last year, is certain that won’t be the case.

“It’s not going to be 2012 turnout, but it’s 100 percent not going to be 2009 turnout,” Stewart said.

Democrats think that their ground game is miles ahead of the bare-bones effort they fielded in the last governor’s race. McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have also combined to spend more than $50 million, blowing past the 2009 record, and that could mean more voters will show up Tuesday.

“When you see more money in an election, usually that does translate into higher turnout, even in a negative election,” McDonald said. “The volume of advertising stimulates people. It gets people talking.”

Cuccinelli strategist Chris LaCivita said it made little sense to think the current environment would motivate Democrats to back McAuliffe.

“I’m certain once all the young voters find out that they are the number one target group to get shafted by Obamacare, they will most certainly turn out to vote on Election Day,” LaCivita said. “The question is, for who?”

Stump speech addition

McAuliffe has urged black business owners to display campaign signs, targeted African American voters with advertising and tailored his message on the trail for that audience.

In his campaign swing with Clinton, McAuliffe added two lines that were not previously a part of his standard stump speech: He made a point of saying he supported restoring voting rights for felons who have served their time, and he referenced a past Cuccinelli proposal to allow hospitals to fingerprint people who could not demonstrate that they would be able to pay their medical bills.

Separately, American Bridge 21st Century, a pro-Democratic super PAC, has launched its own paid get-out-the-vote effort in Virginia that focuses on criticizing Republicans for their records on voting rights issues.

The Clinton tour helped attract some African Americans who weren’t necessarily fired up about McAuliffe personally.

A year ago, Shirley Basnight, a retiree in Hampton, waited a long time to meet the president as he ran for reelection. “I stood on line for Obama, I stood on line for his wife . . . I even got to shake his hand,” she recalled.

On Sunday, she stood in line again, this time to see Clinton and McAuliffe in a Hampton basketball gym.

Although she was holding a McAuliffe sign, Basnight said she was mostly there to see Clinton and had not decided whom to vote for in the governor’s race — despite being besieged with entreaties from the McAuliffe campaign and pleas to attend Sunday’s event.

“They put it in the mail, and they put one on my door, and they had it at the Hampton community center telling me to come here for this. . . . But it wasn’t until I went to church today that [they] were giving the tickets out,” Basnight said.

At her church, Basnight said, “they’re all talking about it. A lot of people say they’re not even going to vote, because neither one of them are any good.”

Eugene Wright Jr., an IT contractor for NASA from Newport News who was also lined up for the Hampton rally, is sure that he is backing McAuliffe.

In Wright’s Hampton Roads community — heavily dependent on defense and other federal spending — people are far more focused on the race than in 2009.

“I think the government shutdown and recent events have a lot to do with that,” he said.

The shutdown hit Wright personally. “Furloughs don’t apply to contractors. I just didn’t work,” he said.

Apathy on campus

On college campuses, Democrats have named campus coordinators aross the state to work with student groups. They’ve ramped up their use of Facebook, under the now-standard theory that voters respond better to entreaties from their friends, rather than strangers.

And they’ve tried some unconventional methods: The state Democratic Party distributed racy posters to campuses highlighting Cuccinelli’s support for Virginia’s anti-sodomy law — “Don’t let Election Day go down without you,” advised one poster — but after an outcry, the party apologized and asked that the posters be taken down.

Thursday evening in Blacksburg, hordes of Virginia Tech students milled outside the building that hosted the final debate of the governor’s race, holding signs and yelling competing slogans. But by Friday morning, the campus was back to normal — with most students professing little interest in the contest.

“I’m honestly not; I know I should be,” one said as she rushed to class, when asked whether she was following the race. Student after student said the same — not sure, not paying attention, sorry.

Megan Dunmire, a freshman from Richmond, was the rare exception — she is registered to vote and is sure she’s casting her ballot for McAuliffe, because Cuccinelli is “so closed-minded.”

But she doesn’t think many of her fellow students are paying attention, even after the debate brought the candidates to campus.

Jack Bardo, vice president of Young Democrats at Virginia Tech, said his group focused on getting students registered to vote through the Oct. 15 registration deadline.

Since then, they’ve been concentrating on collecting those voter pledge cards.

“We’re modeling that in a lot of ways” on the 2012 Obama campaign, Bardo said.

“It is a little bit harder than it was last year,” Bardo said. “But we’re making sure we’re keeping people informed, and it seems like a lot of people are paying attention.”

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