Beneath the money and the mudslinging, the 2004 Presidential race is turning out to be a high school civics teacher's dream come true. A once-apathetic public appears poised for a huge turnout, thanks to a monumental voter-registration effort by the two major parties and their supporters. Voters could number 118 million to 121 million, a big jump from the 106 million who voted in 2000, predicts Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Just reaching the 118 million mark would match the intensity of the last big upswing, in 1992, when 58% of eligible voters turned out. Hitting the high end of Gans's estimate would approach the record '60s era when battles over civil rights and the Vietnam War drew a horde of new voters.
The big question, of course, is how the potentially huge turnout will affect the outcome. Democrats say that if the jump in registrations leads to a massive turnout, they will win. Republicans, not surprisingly, insist it's not that simple: Quality counts, too. Many newly minted Democrats either faked their registrations or won't show up, they say.
If past patterns hold true, droves of voters could well sink the GOP's hopes. "If [turnout] is extremely high, we're looking at occasional voters, swing voters, independents -- and every poll has those breaking toward Kerry," says political scientist Michael P. McDonald of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Indeed, an Oct. 14 Gallup Poll found that 12% of all registered voters say this will be their first Presidential vote -- and that these newbies favored Senator John Kerry over President George W. Bush by a 50% to 35% margin. Polls from Harvard University's Institute of Politics bear out the pro-Dem trend for young new voters.
Democrats and their allies have targeted the 16 million Americans who've turned 18 since 2000, a bloc Kerry has wooed with warnings about a new draft. Meanwhile, pro-Democratic groups have also focused on their traditional constituencies: urban voters, particularly minorities; union members; and the working class. In Arizona, Project Vote has signed up 75,000 voters by concentrating on low-turnout precincts where more than half the population is Latino. New registrants will get four more visits from one of 100 paid canvassers, all hired from the neighborhood, to remind them where to go on Election Day. "We'll give them a ride to the polls or a babysitter or whatever it takes," vows state director Debbie Lopez. Nationally, the nonpartisan Project Vote has registered 1,096,777 new voters in the past year, mostly in low-income and minority communities, says national director David Leland.
Republicans have adopted a centralized approach, relying more on party loyalists and volunteers than paid canvassers. They say they've signed up 3.4 million new voters. "We've gone after real people while the Democrats have just outsourced their ground game and picked up a lot of frauds like Dick Tracy and Mary Poppins," says Jim Dyke, Republican National Committee communications director. The GOP is also honing its successful "72-hour campaign" from 2002, a final push deploying 1.6 million volunteers to battleground states to knock on doors, staff phone banks, and arrange transportation to make sure new registrants show up at the polls. Business allies and evangelical Christians will add to that effort.
Even with those tallies, Republicans concede that Democrats have racked up far bigger numbers. "The word is that the Democrats have simply registered more new voters than we have," says a senior Republican strategist. But Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, insists a centralized GOP effort staffed by party loyalists will produce better results.
Whose voters will actually show up on Nov. 2, especially in the 10 or so critical swing states? Some 80% of new registrants have told pollsters they will turn out on Election Day, but young voters in particular are notoriously distracted by such concerns as overdue term papers, bad weather, or good parties. Only 28.6% of the 18-to-24 crowd voted in 2000, vs. 58% of all registered voters. Working-class people sometimes face the choice between standing in line to vote and being docked an hour's pay. Cars have flats; babies won't nap. In your high school civics teacher's dream, such distractions never interfere with good citizenship. In Campaign 2004, it'll be up to the armies of activists to overcome them.
By Paul Magnusson with Lorraine Woellert, Paula Dwyer, and Lee Walczak in Washington