Flip Side of Democrats' Spat: Higher Turnout

Large Democratic turnouts at caucuses and primaries, as in Nebraska in February, have swelled voter rolls and could help the party in the general election.
Large Democratic turnouts at caucuses and primaries, as in Nebraska in February, have swelled voter rolls and could help the party in the general election. (By Dave Weaver -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The conventional wisdom that a prolonged race for the Democratic presidential nomination between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton is bad news for their party may be turning on its head.

Figures released by Pennsylvania's Department of State on Monday night showed that Democrats have topped 4 million registered voters, the first time either party in the state has crossed that threshold. Democrats have added 161,000 to their rolls, a gain of about 4 percent; Republican registration has dipped about 1 percent, to 3.2 million.

That is consistent with the pattern since the beginning of the year: Democratic turnout in primaries and caucuses has topped Republican turnout, often by huge differences.

In Ohio, 2.2 million voters participated in the Democratic primary, compared with 1.1 million in the Republican primary. In Texas, 2.9 million voters turned out for the Democratic primary and 1.4 million for the GOP primary. Even in Florida, where the Republican primary was one of the most hotly contested of the year and the Democratic primary featured no active campaigning by the candidates, GOP turnout was only marginally higher: 1.9 million vs. 1.7 million.

These turnout figures match what pollsters have found as they have surveyed the electorate throughout the year: The gap between Democratic and Republican identification has grown dramatically.

The Pew Research Center offered fresh evidence of this last week with a report that aggregated interviews with 5,566 voters during the first two months of the year. It found that 36 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats and 27 percent called themselves Republicans, a drop of 6 percentage points since the 2004 election. The report noted that, on an annualized basis, this is the lowest GOP identification in 16 years of surveys.

It's not that Democratic identification is up so much as Republican registration is down. But among independents, Pew reported, there is now a decided advantage for Democrats. Far more of these independents say they tilt toward the Democratic Party than toward the GOP. When all the figures are put together -- hard-core party identifiers and "leaners" -- Democrats have an edge of 51 percent to 37 percent, and that's up three points just in the last year.

What all this means is that the combination of dissatisfaction with President Bush, a diminished Republican brand and a compelling contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has created a huge pool of voters for the eventual nominee -- and other Democratic candidates -- to go after in the fall.

Mark Gersh, who runs the National Center for an Effective Congress, which has long done some of the best political analysis of the overall electorate for the Democratic leadership, has produced figures that demonstrate the implications below the level of the presidential race.

Gersh has been tracking voter turnout in some of the most competitive congressional districts around the country. "In marginal districts, where we have reliable compilations of total vote, Democratic turnout has far exceeded Republican turnout, even in districts with Republican leanings," he wrote.

Some examples: In Wisconsin's 8th District, where Democrat Steve Kagen won a tight race in 2006 in what had been a GOP district, 127,000 Democrats turned out for the Feb. 19 primary, compared with 56,000 Republicans. In Ohio's 1st District, represented by Republican Steve Chabot, 47,000 Republicans turned out on March 4, compared with 107,000 Democrats. That last figure represents more voters than Chabot or his rival attracted in the 2006 general election, and 9,000 fewer votes than the Democratic candidate in that district captured in the 2004 general election.

When the general election arrives, Democrats will have voter lists far larger than they ever imagined and will have to spend far less money than in past years identifying these voters. That will affect every candidate up and down the ballot.

Some Democratic strategists worry that a protracted nomination battle will put the nominee months behind in putting state organizations into place for the general election. That's a real issue, given that in recent cycles, Democratic and Republican nominees could name their state teams in the late spring and get them moving by early summer.

But the Democratic race may be producing an even more valuable asset for the fall, particularly when compared with Republican John McCain's campaign. By the time this race is over, Clinton and Obama will have competed in almost every state (Michigan and Florida being two potentially costly exceptions). The Democratic candidates have been forced to organize these states in the winter and spring. They have identified and trained legions of organizers. They will know which of their state coordinators are the best, and many of those staffers will already be familiar with some battleground states for the fall.

That, too, is a contrast with past races. When nomination battles end quickly, candidates begin the general-election campaign having had little direct experience with many states critical to winning the presidency. They have spent little time campaigning in those states, and their teams have to start almost from scratch.

That is the problem McCain faces. His campaign, strapped for cash and struggling to stay alive, is far behind both Obama and Clinton in developing state-by-state operations. He certainly has the luxury of time now to get that process going, and Republicans have done an exceptional job in recent elections in finding, wooing and turning out their voters. But there is no question that he starts in a deep hole, given what seems to be a more demoralized GOP electorate.

Unless the Obama-Clinton contest turns far nastier than it has already, or ends in a way that seems demonstrably unfair to a portion of the Democratic electorate, the Democrats should benefit from this competition.

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