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Electorate Is a Key Unknown

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page A01

The electorate has been polled, polled and polled again. Campaign workers have knocked on millions of doors with millions more to hit before Nov. 2. Voter registration figures in some states show big increases. And voter interest in the presidential election appears to be at record levels.

But the biggest mobilization in modern presidential politics cannot answer the big question that could determine the outcome of the race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry: Is there an invisible army of voters out there -- and if there is, will it tip the balance toward the incumbent or the challenger?

Kurt Ochsner, center, joins the crowd of people in Seattle who waited until the last day to register to vote. (Matt Brashears -- King County Journal Via AP)

_____In Today's Post_____
Probable Voters: How Polls Are Made, Swayed (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)

All indicators point to an increase in turnout compared with 2000, when nearly 106 million voted. Curtis Gans of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate predicts participation levels equivalent to 1992, which would mean 118 million to 121 million voters this year.

But the composition of the electorate, perhaps more than its size, is the crucial unknown heading into the final week of campaigning. Will there be a surge of young voters, a spike in participation by social conservatives, an outpouring of Republicans loyal to Bush, an energized cadre of sporadic voters hostile to the president, an invigorated black or Latino vote -- or will all of the above occur?

The belief in a hidden army of voters stems from signs of voter interest in the election, registration figures reported by the states and confusion generated by a profusion of polls that sometimes appear sharply at odds with one another about the state of the presidential race.

Many partisans say that they believe polls this year are not capturing the views of new voters or that they do not accurately predict who the likeliest voters are. Pollsters say they are working to make sure that new registrants and sporadic voters who are certain to vote this year are included in their samples -- but there are limitations to their ability to predict the shape of the electorate.

"I think we're likely to see, certainly, a higher turnout than in 2000 and the 1990s, and possibly the highest in our lifetime," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. "Is it going to be higher across the board, or will some demographic groups turn out disproportionately? That really is the critical question, and I don't think anybody has a good handle on that."

The Bush campaign, led by White House senior adviser Karl Rove, consciously set out after 2000 to alter the shape of the electorate in 2004, hoping to narrow or eliminate what has been a historic Democratic advantage in party identification on Election Day. In the past three presidential elections, 35 percent of voters identified themselves as Republicans, while 38 percent to 39 percent said they were Democrats.

Because Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, his advisers launched an effort to register millions of new GOP voters, calculating that, by raising the overall GOP percentage a point or two, they could go a long way toward ensuring the president's reelection. The Bush team concentrated efforts in heavily Republican precincts, particularly in fast-growing exurban counties, and last month, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie announced that the party had achieved its goal of 3 million new registrants.

The GOP efforts, however, produced a counter effort among Democrats, fueled by strong anti-Bush sentiment. Democrats, aided by independent but allied groups such as America Coming Together and ACORN, mounted registration drives in cities, aimed at minority voters. Final figures are not available in all states, but the arms race in registration may have canceled out efforts on both sides, with an energized right clashing against an equally energized left.

"When we look at this after the election, we're going to look real hard at whether Rove succeeded in getting enough energy and enthusiasm among his voters but also whether he produced more anti-Bush voters than Bush voters," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, a Kerry adviser.

There are several potentially significant voter blocs in this election. One consists of voters younger than 30, who normally turn out in numbers disproportionate to their large share of the population, but who have been the focus of great attention in this campaign.

The 2000 campaign provided few incentives for young voters to participate, with much of the debate between Bush and Vice president Al Gore focused on Medicare, Social Security, prescription drugs and other issues of interest mainly to older voters. But the economy, Iraq and speculation about a military draft have younger voters paying more attention.

A poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, released Thursday, showed college students splitting for the Massachusetts senator 52 percent to 39 percent. But other polls suggest that the universe of young voters may be more evenly divided. "This might just be the election where they turn out," Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center said of the under-30 voters. "But we don't find a consistent Kerry or consistent Bush trend. It moves around a lot."

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