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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.

For many of these disengaged people, racial solidarity with Obama does not automatically trump apathy or despair. Even if volunteers manage to get them registered, it will require intensive follow-up to make sure they know where to vote, have the necessary identification and then turn out.

So as Bass, a black Amherst College sophomore from the Chicago suburbs, worked in 93-degree heat to canvass the bus stop in Macon -- which sits in front of a defunct railroad station that still has the words "Colored Waiting Room" etched above an archway -- she had to deploy a full range of tools. She linked the election to local issues such as rising bus fares. She chatted up people even after they said no, hoping to establish a connection for later. She deftly turned the flirtations of young men back to the task at hand.

Latasha Edwards, 20, a college student in lime flip-flops, flatly said that her vote would not make a difference. "There are a million other people on Earth," she said.

But Bass won her over by stressing an inequity in Macon that she said Obama will address: the gap in quality between public schools and the private schools where many white families send their children.

Lorrie Miller, 25, a mother of four who works in the mailroom of the local newspaper, was mostly uninformed about voting, saying she had last voted in the seventh grade, confusing a mock election held in school with the real thing.

Several others averted Bass's gaze, gave her a cold stare when she approached or signaled with a curt "I can't vote" that they are felons, who under Georgia law are not allowed to cast ballots. Bass reminded them that they can register after they finish probation.

She asked Dontrell Rozier, 20, who signed up the week before, how his efforts to register his friends were going. Not well. "Most of my people believe their votes don't count," he said, citing the 2000 election recount in Florida.

Bass's last sign-up of the afternoon was Anthony Harris, 40, a beer deliveryman who said he has never voted because "I'm a religious type. My god can make a positive change for mankind, but I've never seen a politician make a positive change. There's still starvation; there's still war." It took five minutes before he relented.

In three hours, Bass collected 20 registrations -- a good haul. After a month, she and two other volunteers have collected more than 700.

In the area around Macon, an estimated 40,000 African Americans are eligible to vote but are not on the rolls, out of about 600,000 black people in the state who are eligible but unregistered. The campaign's goal is to sign up at least 4,000 in Macon.

With months to go before the Oct. 6 registration deadline, there was an increase of 367 black registered voters in Macon's congressional district in June, compared with 24 white voters. Statewide, the rate of registered African American voters is 28.1 percent, up from 27.2 percent in January.

Bass is aware of the hurdles ahead in turning the registrations into votes, though the campaign has signed up 300 Macon volunteers to assist with that. "It's a monumental challenge," she said. "You see how mentally shackled and jaded people are, because they've seen politicians let them down in the past."

Many political scientists contend that, with exceptions in Virginia and Florida, the Democrats' deficit in the South is too big for Obama to overcome even with a huge increase in black turnout, unless he can also improve on the performance of past Democrats among white Southerners. While Obama is likely to do well among younger whites, they say, the prospect of a surge in black turnout may stoke higher turnout among whites for Sen. John McCain, his Republican rival.

Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that it makes sense for Obama to invest some of his considerable resources in the South to force McCain to defend it, but that he sees little hope of victories there. "There's going to be a record number of African Americans turning out," he said. "But the question is whether it will make any difference in these states where Republicans have been winning by double-digit margins."

Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, rejects this analysis, saying the political climate is so changed since 2004 that past results are not relevant. At the least, Obama's voter drive will help Democratic candidates down the ballot, now and in the future. And Hildebrand dismissed the prospect of a white counterreaction to an increase in black voters.

But Rep. Jim Marshall, a conservative Democrat whose district includes Macon, appears less confident. He has declined to endorse Obama, and his chief of staff, John Kirincich, was skittish about discussing the benefits that the candidate's push to turn out more black voters would hold for Marshall, who barely won reelection in 2006 and faces another challenge.

Marshall "is not really interested in commenting on the presidential race. It's not his ballgame," Kirincich said. Pressed, he said: "We will accept more people voting for him from [wherever] they come."

Whatever the broader ramifications, they seem distant on the ground. In Columbus, 90 miles west of Macon, several volunteers were recently canvassing a housing project that looks across the Chattahoochee River at Alabama.

Nikasha Wells, 28, a Florida lawyer who took a leave to volunteer, was glad to meet Linda Cross, who was not only registered but also willing to make calls for Obama. Cross, 49, a Wal-Mart employee, said she always votes because of her family's ties to the civil rights movement -- marchers had camped on their land near Selma, Ala.

But next door, Renea Thomas, 27, a janitor and mother of four, was puzzled when Wells asked her to register to vote. "To who?" she said. She has never voted. "I just never thought about it," she said.

Agiesta reported from Washington.

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