Can New Voters Make the Difference?


From the time Barack Obama declared his candidacy for president, his campaign realized it would benefit from what came to be called the enthusiasm gap. “In most campaigns, it’s a challenge to drag people out,” Western States Field Director Buffy Wicks told a group of volunteer organizers gathered in San Francisco last summer.

“We’re not that campaign,” Wicks added.

A year before the January 2008 Iowa caucuses, Obama’s rallies were already drawing massive crowds and the Illinois senator inspired more excitement within the Democratic Party’s activist base than any candidate in recent memory.

The campaign realized, however, “that enthusiasm alone will not win the nomination.” As part of an effort to “channel… enthusiasm into an organization capable of delivering victories,” the campaign devoted considerable resources to volunteer recruitment and training, building a grassroots mobilization effort of unprecedented scope and sophistication.

In the months since Obama clinched the nomination, his campaign has embarked on an ambitious plan to expand that organization in hopes of leveraging the enthusiasm gap on a much larger general-election scale. Over the summer, the campaign has focused its attention on registering new voters. As a recent Crystal Ball article points out, record numbers of new voters registered during the primary season, and the Obama campaign claims that “those numbers just scratch the surface of what’s possible.”

This article examines the structure of Obama’s evolving grassroots organization and considers the role his campaign’s voter-registration effort might play in the general election.

The Obama Campaign’s Grassroots Structure

In the months leading up to the primary season, the Obama campaign trained thousands of volunteers, offering them instruction on how to build an effective political organization and giving them access to the high-tech tools that are essential in any modern campaign.

The campaign drew on the candidate’s own experience as a community organizer and recruited veterans from the labor movement as well as a cadre of younger activists (many of whom had worked for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid) to develop a program for volunteer recruitment and training.

“The big challenge,” an Obama aide explained, “is how do you handle… thousands of potential volunteers and turn them into an effective, focused organization.” The answer, the campaign decided, was “to create small self-reliant, self-sufficient teams that require very little in the way of staff support.” Explained one Obama staffer: “If you create horizontal, peer-to-peer support structures, you can replicate across a lot of space and a lot of people very, very quickly.”

Every presidential campaign seeks to exercise control over its organization, and Barack Obama’s is no exception. But the campaign’s organizational push has been premised on the belief that effectively harnessing grassroots support is difficult if volunteers are, as one aide put it, just “cogs in a political machine.” Making those volunteers dependent on instruction and supervision from above comes at a price because there are only so many volunteers a paid staffer can effectively supervise.

The campaign also believed that giving volunteers “a place at the table” would inspire greater commitment and encourage more people to get involved. Jeremy Bird, currently the Obama campaign’s field director in the critical battleground state of Ohio, served in a similar capacity in South Carolina before that state’s primary. The most important lesson from South Carolina, Bird explained, was that “training and empowering people made the biggest difference.”

Without surrendering completely its ability to set goals and impose discipline, the campaign has placed an emphasis on cultivating community leaders who can work without direct supervision. Volunteer organizers are also trained, as one staffer put it, to “go forth and multiply,” and bring in new volunteers to expand the organization’s reach.

Deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand recently confessed having had doubts during the primary season about whether volunteer recruitment could “build enough capacity to get us across the finish line.” But, says Hildebrand, “I quickly lost that skepticism…because I saw the numbers they were creating.”

Rather than recruiting traditional precinct captains, the Obama campaign focuses on building neighborhood teams of five or six members who assume specific, clearly defined roles, including a team coordinator (the team’s principal contact with its local field director), and a data coordinator (who is in charge of using the campaign’s online voter-contact tools), while other members assume responsibilities such as volunteer-recruitment, phone-bank management, and canvassing.

In addition to teaching leadership and team-building strategies, the Obama campaign trains its volunteer organizers in the nuts and bolts of modern targeted campaigning and gives them access to the high-tech information-management tools that have become indispensable to voter-contact operations. The most important of these tools is the Democratic Party’s registered voter list, a vast database containing troves of information about voters and their probable political leanings. Campaigns use that list to target undecided voters they might be able to persuade, to identify their likely supporters, and make sure they get to the polls on Election Day.

Although registered voter lists have long played an important role in campaigns, the parties have shrouded their data mining efforts in secrecy and have placed strict limits on access to their databases. In early 2007, the Democratic National Committee announced the creation of VoteBuilder, a Web-based interface that enables campaigns and party committees across the country both to utilize the Democrats’ database and to contribute to its upkeep by updating it to reflect the results of ongoing voter-contact efforts.

VoteBuilder permits the Obama campaign to give neighborhood-level volunteers access to the registered voter list for their areas of responsibility. Field directors offer guidance on targeting, but volunteers are able to coordinate voter contact efforts on their own and to assume many of the data management responsibilities typically reserved to paid staff.

The Obama campaign has begun rapidly expanding the operation it built up during the nominating contest. It has trained at least 3,600 Obama Fellows–volunteers who pledged to work at least thirty hours per week for several months–and has a larger paid-staff presence on the ground than any presidential campaign in history. The Obama campaign will not comment on the current size of its volunteer base except to say that its numbers are already in the “tens of thousands.”

The Behavior of Newly Registered Voters in North Carolina

On May 10, the Obama campaign launched a program called “Vote For Change,” a nationwide voter registration drive that is, by most accounts, the most ambitious such effort ever undertaken by a presidential candidate.

Voter registration drives are usually considered prohibitively labor intensive: signing up a thousand new voters can represent hundreds of volunteer hours. “Most campaigns don’t have the time, the inclination or the resources to do voter registration,” observed one Obama organizer. “We have all three.”

Table 1 illustrates why the Obama campaign believes registering voters is a useful way to spend its time. As of 2006, more than 65 million citizens over the age of eighteen were not registered to vote, and registration rates were lowest among the constituencies most likely to support Barack Obama: people under twenty-five, African Americans and Latinos.

Table 1. 2006 Voting-Age Population vs. Registration

Voting-Age Population (Citizens Only) Not Registered to Vote % of VAP not Registered
All Citizens
Total 18 and over 201,073,0000 65,226,0000 32.4%
18 to 24 24,954,000 13,400,000 53.7%
25 to 44 70,736,000 25,637,000 36.2%
45 to 64 70,755,000 18,584,000 26.3%
65 to 74 18,208,000 3,925,000 21.6%
75 and over 16,420,000 3,680,000 22.4%
White Non-Hispanic
Total 18 and over 149,761,000 43,141,000 28.8%
18 to 24 16,803,000 8,462,000 50.4%
25 to 44 49,768,000 16,400,000 33.0%
45 to 64 54,674,000 12,697,000 23.2%
65 to 74 14,481,000 2,686,000 18.5%
75 and over 14,036,000 2,898,000 20.6%
Total 18 and over 24,229,000 9,464,000 39.1%
18 to 24 3,796,000 2,249,000 59.7%
25 to 44 9,606,000 3,709,000 38.6%
45 to 64 7,903,000 2,599,000 32.9%
65 to 74 1,776,000 544,000 30.6%
75 and over 1,174,000 363,000 30.9
Hispanic (Any Race)
Total 18 and over 17,315,000 8,011,000 46.3%
18 to 24 2,987,000 1,832,000 61.3%
25 to 44 7,525,000 3,600,000 47.8%
45 to 64 4,890,000 1,923,000 39.3%
65 to 74 1,205,000 438,000 36.3%
75 and over 707,000 217,000 30.7%

Source: United States Census Bureau

Some observers have questioned whether the Obama campaign can expect to generate much of a return on the resources it invests registering new voters. Unregistered but eligible citizens are widely assumed to be less politically engaged–and therefore less likely to cast a ballot–than people who are already on the rolls.

As pollsters can readily confirm, it is next to impossible to predict turnout nearly three months before the election. But the behavior of newly registered voters during the primary season can offer a few clues about what the Obama campaign hopes to achieve from its voter registration drive.

Nearly 150,000 new voters registered as Democrats in North Carolina between January 1 and the May 6 primary, the vast majority of them having signed up in the few weeks before the election. Records maintained by the secretary of state make clear that those voters turned out at a significantly higher rate than Democrats who registered prior to this year.

Table 2. 2008 Primary Turnout Among North Carolina Democrats

Registered in 2008 Registered prior to 2008 All Democrats
Registered Voted % Registered Voted % Registered Voted %
Whites 55,732 36,279 65.1% 1,354,023 709,555 52.4% 1,409,755 745,834 52.9%
African Americans 78,769 50,547 64.2% 854,855 478,902 56.0% 933,624 529,449 56.7%
Others/Unknown 13,831 8,267 59.8% 82,666 33,389 40.4% 96,497 41,656 43.2%
Total 148,332 95,093 64.1% 2,291,544 1,221,846 53.3% 2,439,876 1,316,939 54.0%

The rate of participation among newly registered African-American Democrats (64.2 percent) was slightly higher than the 2004 general election turnout of black voters who registered as Democrats in the eleven months preceding that election. (Newly registered African-American Democrats turned out at a rate of 63.7 percent in 2004.) On the safe assumption that turnout will be higher in this year’s general election than it was in any primary, one can assume that newly registered African Americans will participate at a significantly higher rate this November than they did four years ago.

Newly registered Democrats tend–not surprisingly–to be younger than the average voter, and they are more likely to live in areas in which Obama did well in the primary. More than 60 percent of new Democrats registered in counties that Obama carried by more than 20 points, with the Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro areas seeing the largest increases. Similarly, turnout among new Democrats was most impressive in counties in which Obama ran strongest (and to which his campaign devoted the most resources). In Orange County–home of UNC-Chapel Hill, where Obama won more than 70 percent of the vote–83.5 percent of newly registered Democrats cast a ballot in the primary.

Even if the Obama campaign manages to register an unprecedented number of new voters in North Carolina, and even if those voters turn out in historic numbers, the Democratic ticket will still face an uphill battle in the Tar Heel State. In the year leading up to the 2004 election, more than a quarter million people registered as Democrats in North Carolina. Yet even with native son John Edwards as a running mate, John Kerry lost the state by 435,000 votes.

But the Obama campaign’s voter-registration drive is underway in battleground states–as well as long shots–across the country, including neighboring Virginia (in which the campaign has opened twenty field offices); Nevada (which had, prior to this year, one of the lowest registration rates in the country); and Florida (whose governor recently restored the voting rights of tens of thousands of formerly disenfranchised felons). Assuming the Illinois senator can replicate in other states the pattern evident in North Carolina’s Democratic primary, one can safely conclude that time spent registering new voters–and building an organization capable of turning them out–will be time well spent for the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Simply adding new supporters to the voter rolls is indeed a useful undertaking, but it is by no means the sole aim of the campaign’s current effort. Vote For Change is as much focused on expanding the campaign’s organization and laying the groundwork for November’s all-important “get out the vote” effort as it is on increasing registration.

In the process of seeking out potential new voters, the campaign is identifying likely supporters who are already registered, recruiting new volunteers, and training them, as one aide put it, to “build miniature campaigns in their own neighborhoods.”

“This summer is all about building capacity,” an Obama staffer explained. The ultimate goal, said another, is “having the resources to do our persuasion and to turn out the vote.”

Justin M. Sizemore is a University of Virginia alumnus and attorney who will also author a chapter on the Democratic nomination battle for Larry J. Sabato’s forthcoming book on the 2008 election, America’s Historic Marathon, to be published in 2009. He can be contacted via email at