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Democrats spend big to lure Obama's minority and young voters back to the polls

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By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

As political gambles go, it's a big and risky one: $50 million to test the proposition that the Democratic Party's outreach to new voters that helped make Barack Obama president can work in an election where his name is not on the ballot.

The standard rule of midterm elections is that only the most reliable voters show up at the polls, so both parties have traditionally focused on the unglamorous and conventional work that turns out their bases. But this year, the Democrats are doubling down on registering and motivating newer voters -- especially the 15 million heavily minority and young, who made it to the polls for the first time in the last presidential election.

"It's a great experiment to see whether we can bring out voters whose only previous vote was in 2008," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The party's overall budget for reaching new voters is more than twice as big as the $17 million it spent during the tumultuous 2006 midterm, which returned control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats.

Much about its "Vote 2010" effort has that way-back feel of two years ago: legions of canvassers going door-to-door, a stream of inspirational videos, an e-mail list of more than 13 million, and ads on Web sites including Latina.com, BlackPlanet.com, YELP.com and DailyCandy.

On Thursday, the 2008 presidential campaign's surviving grassroots operation, now Organizing for America, unveiled a spiffy Web site where supporters can get customized information about voting rules and deadlines in their states. It takes but a few keystrokes to fill in a voter registration form that then requires only a signature and a stamp.

But for all the wizardry, what the Democrats don't have is a candidate on the ballot named Obama. Instead, they face a political climate in which hope and exhilaration has given way to anger and disappointment. To the degree there is enthusiasm now, polls show, it is largely on the Republican side.

There does not seem to be a similar effort within the GOP. A spokesman would not discuss its operations and scoffed at the bet that Democrats are making this year. "When that announcement was made, it just wasn't taken very credibly," says Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye. "Those voters just aren't going to be there this time."

He's not alone in thinking that.

Some veteran Democratic Party operatives are also skeptical that the $50 million investment will pay off -- except, perhaps, in keeping the grassroots operation alive for Obama's reelection bid two years from now. Some even suggest that the president's team has put his long-term interests ahead of his party's immediate struggle for survival.

"I have zero confidence that they're heading in the right direction here," says one longtime Democratic organizer who didn't want to be quoted by name criticizing his party's major midterm election initiative. Added another: "I think they're going to come in for a very rude awakening. It's going to be brutal."

If that turns out to be the case, the doubters say, Democrats will wake up the morning of Nov. 3 wishing they had spent that $50 million on more traditional methods, like television ads, for reaching their base and persuading independents.


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