By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; A01
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.
Rick Farmer, a Democratic activist in Sarasota, Fla., is seeing the challenge firsthand as he knocks on doors in a region where people are dreading the arrival of the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on their beaches. "I can't tell you how much anger there is out there," he said. "I have people ready to spit in my face." Some, he said, tell him, "We've been hoodwinked -- not by Obama, but by government."
In Mobile, Ala., Organizing for America volunteer Darlene Gay-Allen blares the Dells' "I'm Only a Man" from her boombox as she registers voters and tries to persuade her neighbors not to lose faith. "President Obama is only a man, and he's doing the best he could," she said.
Last year's Democratic gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey only increased the doubts that Obama's magic can rub off on other Democrats.
Although the president stumped for the party's nominees in both states, voter falloff was sharper than typical for an off-year election. Several private post-election analyses, which Democrats and their allies are using to plan their campaign strategies, showed that the decline was particularly steep among African Americans, Hispanics and, especially, younger voters.
"There wasn't a real effort to excite them," counters Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine, the former Virginia governor. "The effort in Virginia was to go after independent voters, but we ended up losing out on the group of Democrats and Democratic-leaning folks who had turned out in 2008."
Party officials concede that their efforts to remotivate the new Obama voters are not likely to affect contests where Democrats are running far behind. But they insist it is not unreasonable to believe they can make a difference in races that will be decided by two to four percentage points.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, Gov. Ed Rendell -- himself a former national Democratic Party chairman -- notes that Democrats now outnumber Republicans in voter registration by 1.3 million, an advantage nearly three times larger than when he ran for governor in 2002. "They are motivate-able," Rendell said of newer Democratic voters. "Can you motivate all 100 percent of them? No. Can you motivate 20 percent of them? Yes." How much higher it goes than that, Rendell said, "will decide whether we win or lose."
The party plans to embark on a massive new program this fall to register college students, including many who volunteered for Obama as high school students but were too young to vote.
It is working barbershops and beauty salons in African American communities, and organizing events around the World Cup to reach out to Latinos. Every Wednesday in California, party organizers and volunteers attend naturalization ceremonies.
But what will matter more than anything else, many Democrats say, is Obama himself. How effective will he be in convincing those who came to the polls for the first time in 2008 that this election is crucial to accomplishing what he promised then?
"It is very important to make that case to these voters and that the president be involved in it as well. And he will be at points along the way," Kaine said. "The president is definitely signed into this plan. He likes the community-organizing aspect of it."
So the party will try things his way.
Has Obama indeed reinvented the art and science of winning elections, or will 2008 turn out to have been a unique moment that suited the particular gifts of one politician? The Democrats are about to lay down $50 million to find out.
Staff writers Sandhya Somashekhar and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.