The Barack Obama campaign has begun spending heavily on GOTV operations in Georgia, Virginia, and Florida, as well as other Southern states in an attempt to roll back the GOP’s stronghold. Most of these efforts focus on potential African-American voters who have not registered to vote in the past, which leads the Washington Post to wonder whether Obama can win the South with this strategy. Overall, it looks like a long shot:
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.
So the effort will probably not help win Obama the South, but could the effort hurt him? Unlike John McCain, who accepted public financing, Obama has no spending limits on his campaign. As long as he can keep up the level of fundraising seen in June — a very big if — then Obama can afford to throw away money on states he won’t win in November. If his fundraising doesn’t meet expectations, then Obama will be spending money that he can’t afford to waste on essentially unproductive efforts.
The Post also makes a couple of assumptions in this analysis that don’t acknowledge reality. First, black voters have supported Democratic presidential tickets at about a 90-9 split the last three or four elections. It’s possible that Obama might squeeze an extra couple of points out of the nine Kerry left on the table, but it seems unlikely that Obama would win half of the black vote that George W Bush won in 2004 to get to 95%. That small group appears committed to the conservative cause, maybe more so than Bush, and already resistant to identity-politics pressures.
The bigger risk is assuming that these new voters will come out to the polls in November. In reading the anecdotes the Posts publishes, the people who have registered had to have their arms twisted to bother. With that level of motivation, they’re unlikely to feel enthused enough to wait in line on a workday to cast a vote in the general election. Some might, but most will probably shrug off voting as they have done in the past.
Team Obama knows better than to rely on this as their main strategy. Obama has moved his rhetoric to the center, attempting to win back the white working-class vote that he lost in the last three months of the primaries. That’s where his team will focus, but as long as he has the cash, Obama will hedge his bets as best he can.