With less than three weeks before the election, President Bush may be in a politically precarious position going into tonight's critical debate with Sen. John F. Kerry. Anecdotal and quantitative evidence suggest that Democrats and independent groups that support Democrats have done a better job than Republicans at registering new voters in key battleground states. In a normal year, the difficulty in getting the newly registered to the polls might mitigate this advantage. But anti-Bush passions on the left are running exceedingly high, making it more likely that marginal voters -- people who rarely or never vote -- will turn out this year.
"Conventional wisdom tells us that a good ground game means three to four points on Election Day," said Sarah Leonard, a spokeswoman for America Coming Together, a coalition of liberal, feminist and environmental organizations that supports Kerry.
University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato wrote in his "Crystal Ball" campaign analysis earlier this week that he expects a high turnout that will favor Kerry. "We are tempted to argue that Bush actually needed his full 5 to 6 percent September lead to insure a narrow victory," he wrote.
Part of Sabato's rationale for his prediction is that he thinks poll respondents who say they are undecided today will break somewhat more heavily for Kerry when they get to the voting booth.
For more than a year, a number of independent advocacy groups that support Democrats have worked diligently to identify and register potential Democratic voters. Even Republicans acknowledge that Democratic-leaning groups have registered far more people than Republican supporters.
For instance, America Coming Together says it has registered 400,000 new voters nationwide, the vast majority in the battleground states of Pennsylvania (131,000), Missouri (120,000) and Ohio (85,000).
Moving America Forward, a Latino advocacy group founded by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), announced this week that it had registered 140,000 new, mostly Hispanic voters in the closely divided states of Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada. In Colorado, Florida and New Mexico the three states that have partisan registration -- about 60 percent of the new registrations have been Democrats, 20 percent Republicans and 20 percent independents, according to a spokesperson for the group.
In a front-page article in the New York Times on Sept. 26, writer Ford Fessenden wrote: "A sweeping voter registration campaign in heavily Democratic areas has added tens of thousands of new voters to the rolls in the swing states of Ohio and Florida, a surge that has far exceeded the efforts of Republicans in both states
The Washington Post has examined this phenomenon in a number of stories that are worth reading. You can see them here and here. One Post story notes that voter registration has surged in Republican-leaning Virginia -- a state not typically considered a battleground -- with the heaviest activity in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the most reliably Democratic part of the state.
Aside from new voter registration, many Democrats and even some nonpartisans believe the polls are not accurately reflecting the intensity of passion felt by those on the left, many of whom will be motivated to vote for the first time out of anger at Bush and his policies.
For example, in the Washington Post/ABC News poll, respondents are asked first if they are registered to vote. They are also asked if they voted in the last presidential election. Those who answer no to the second question (besides 18-to-21 year olds), are excluded from the pool of likely voters. In yesterday's tracking poll, Bush led Kerry 50-47 among likely voters, but Kerry led Bush 48-46 among registered voters. That's means Bush benefits by 5 points when newly registered voters who didn't vote four years ago are excluded.
Remember the Republican Revolution of 1994? Leading up to the midterm election that year, most pollsters and analysts expected GOP gains, but few predicted the ensuing blowout, in part because it was difficult to quantify through polls the emotions that were percolating among white male voters in particular that year.
In many ways, this year's election is all about the president. Poll after poll has shown that he is more beloved among Republicans than Kerry is beloved among Democrats. Both candidates have equal unfavorable ratings among members of the opposing party. Forty-seven percent of independents in yesterday's Washington Post poll have an unfavorable impression of Bush, while 44 percent have an unfavorable impression of Kerry. But what these numbers don't reveal is who will be most motivated to vote.
"Nobody knows for sure what's going to happen," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, who has long been active in Republican politics. "But hatred is a more reliable motivator than love, particularly in a state like Florida where you have hatred and anger mixed with a thirst for revenge."
Many Republicans argue that Democrats won't be able to motivate the voters they've registered partially because they've relied too heavily on outside groups that use low-skilled hired hands who are notoriously sloppy and often have a large number of registration applications discarded for being incomplete or occasionally even fraudulent. Newspapers around the country have detailed examples of incompetence and worse by people hired by outside groups to register voters.
Republican National Committee spokesman Terry Holt said Republicans, by contrast, have relied little on outside groups to register new voters. The RNC and related groups have registered four million new voters, he said. Democratic National Committee officials refused to give an estimate of the number of people they and their allies have registered.
"All over the country, we see registration breaking records," Holt said. "So both parties are energizing people. But we feel strongly that our efforts are going to help reelect the president because the Kerry campaign has outsourced GOTV (get out the vote efforts) and registration, and we don't know what's going to happen to these folks."
Lara Brown, a visiting scholar at Hendrix College in Arkansas, who has been active in Democratic politics, cautioned against reading too much into the registration boasts of outside groups. For instance, she said, many of the new registrants might simply be new state residents who have voted in other states or people who have moved within their own state.
"A lot of people are just counting the number of forms they have and saying, 'We have 100,000 extra people in our state.' Well maybe, maybe not."
Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University in Georgia, notes that the Republicans, who used to dominate the air game but often lost the grassroots ground game to Democrats, have vastly improved their voter turnout operations. And, like Brown, he also cautioned against reading too much into registration numbers.
"Voting is habitual and so is not voting," Black said. "Some of the new voters, if they're registered by someone else, you'd think there'd be a slightly less chance that they'll get out to vote if they were registered by someone else as opposed to someone who is self-motivated."