For Obama, Hurdles in Expanding Black Vote

By Alec MacGillis and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 28, 2008

MACON, Ga. -- Amanda Bass, a volunteer for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, had already tried once to get Wilmer Gray to register to vote. But when she glimpsed him in a black T-shirt and White Sox cap again on a recent weekday at the main bus stop here, she was determined to give it another try.

This time, Gray, 21, agreed -- but his bus pulled up before he could fill out the form. Bass jumped onboard and persuaded the driver to wait.

"He was someone I'd worked hard to get," said Bass, 19. "I couldn't let him go, not after seeing how far he'd come."

At the heart of the Obama campaign's strategy is a national effort to increase registration and turnout among the millions of Democratic-inclined Americans who have not been voting, particularly younger people and African Americans. The push began during the primaries but expanded this month to a nationwide registration drive led by 3,000 volunteers dispatched around the country.

Gaining greater African American support could well put Obama over the top in states where Democrats have come close in the past two elections, and could also help him retain the big swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan.

If 95 percent of black voters support Obama in November, in line with a recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll, he can win Florida if he increases black turnout by 23 percent over 2004, assuming he performs at the same levels that Democratic candidate John F. Kerry did with other voters that year.

Obama can win Nevada if he increases black turnout by 8 percent. Ohio was so close in 2004 that if Obama wins 95 percent of the black vote, more than Kerry did, he will win the state without a single extra voter. But an increase in overall black turnout could help offset a poorer performance among other voters.

The push has also raised Democrats' hopes of reclaiming Southern states with large black populations, such as Georgia and North Carolina, where low turnout among voters of all races has left much more untapped potential than in traditionally competitive states such as Ohio. Obama, who himself led a huge voter-registration drive in Chicago in 1992, has said he could compete in states such as Mississippi by increasing black turnout by 30 percent.

A Post analysis suggests it will take more than that to win across the South. If Obama matches Kerry's performance among white voters and increases Democrats' share of black voters to 95 percent, he will still need to increase black turnout in Georgia by 64 percent and in Mississippi by 51 percent to win. Virginia and North Carolina would be in closer reach, requiring increases of 30 and 36 percent, respectively.

The drive is unprecedented in scale and exemplifies Obama's call for government that works "from the bottom up." But as Bass's efforts in Georgia show, the undertaking is laden with challenges, raising questions about the kind of return the campaign will get on its big investment of manpower.

Black turnout overall does not lag behind the national average by much, and Obama's rise already inspired many blacks to get involved for the first time during the primaries.

That means that in seeking to further drive up black turnout, the campaign is in many places reaching out to a disconnected segment of the population that long ago gave up hope in politics.

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