Nearly 300,000 New Florida Voters Sign On With Democrats

Sep 17, 2008


The Tampa Tribune

WASHINGTON - A significant Democratic lead this year in new registered voters in Florida represents a potential leg up for the party's presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

The rub is getting these voters to show up on Election Day.

"The 2008 primary and caucus season was huge. And particularly among youth voters and groups, there's a lot of energy on the ground," said Abby Kiesa, a researcher with the non-partisan Center for Information & Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

But with less than three weeks left for Floridians to register in time to vote in the presidential election — and just over four weeks until early voting begins on Oct. 20 -- not everyone is convinced that a Democrat edge in newly registered voters means Republican candidate John McCain is necessarily disadvantaged.

"Florida Republicans have always been the underdogs when it comes to voter registration ," said Katie Gordon, a spokeswoman with the Republican Party of Florida. But she added: "Republicans consistently turn out more voters than Democrats — more voters in general and more of the new voters we register."

With Florida again viewed as a presidential battleground this election, the Obama and McCain campaigns and the state political parties are scrambling to register as many voters as possible before the Oct. 6 deadline.

There are now 10.6 million registered voters statewide, according to the latest published Florida Division of Elections numbers through July 28. Of those registered voters, 4.38 million identify themselves as Democrats, compared to 3.92 million for Republicans.

Obama's campaign, especially, has proclaimed new voters a key cog in their efforts in Florida, where recent presidential elections have been decided by the slimmest of margins.

According to the latest state numbers, more than 252,000 of Florida's newly registered voters this year have enrolled as Democrats, compared to more than 98,000 identifying themselves as Republican.

State Democrats say they have more up-to-date data — through the end of August -- that reflects even better numbers for them.

Those numbers show 287,770 new Democratic voter registrations since January, after purging the names of previous voters who died, moved away, or become otherwise ineligible to vote. That compares to net gains of 112,290 for Republicans and 89,859 independent voters, they say.

Most non-partisan experts and scholars agree that higher voter registration numbers do, in fact, positively correlate to higher numbers of people who actually show up to vote.

Michael McDonald, an elections expert at George Mason University in Virginia who has studied Florida voter registration and turnout statistics, said 65.9 percent of new voting registrants in the state in 2004 turned out for the presidential contest. Floridians who registered later in that year — closest to the presidential election -- ended up voting in higher rates, he said.

McDonald and others caution that this year may be difficult to compare with earlier years, because, "I do think there is something going on with young people."

Already this year, a record 6.5 million voters under the age of 30 nationwide turned up to vote in the presidential primaries and caucuses -- many of them voting in presidential contests for the first time.

In Florida's Jan. 29 primaries, for instance, more than 151,000 voters under age 30 voted in the Democratic primary — even though the party said it wouldn't count and the candidates did not actively campaign in the state -- and more than 134,000 voted in the state's Republican primary, according to estimates from CIRCLE.

Overall, that turnout rate among eligible younger voters in Florida's primary represented more than a tripling of the rate from the 2000 primary, from 4 percent to 14 percent.

McCain led the way in the Florida GOP primary by grabbing 30 percent of these young voters; Obama grabbed 43 percent of these voters in the Democratic primary, compared to 44 percent for Hillary Clinton.

Still, it is difficult to say how much of an impact this new youth vote will have on the Florida presidential election. The under-30 vote in Florida's primaries this year — despite increased participation -- still represented only a narrow demographic of the overall voters, just 9 percent of all participants for Democrats, and 7 percent for Republicans.

However, if the race is razor close, any group of voters will be considered crucial.

And McDonald noted the Bush campaign in 2004 showed that even when Democrats do well in turning out their young and other newer voters, the ability of Republicans to motivate their own new voters should not be discounted.

In Florida, for instance, Democrats out-registered Republicans by more than 60,000 new voters in 2004, according to numbers provided by state GOP spokeswoman Gordon.

But turnout of those Republican registrants on Election Day was 75.7 percent, compared to 66.1 percent of the new Democrat registrants, said Gordon. All considered, Republicans ended up turning out 138 more of these voters than did Democrats, said Gordon.

"I don't think Democrats can put all their eggs in the 'new voters' basket," said Gordon. "Will some of these people they register vote? Yes, of course. But the stats prove it is the Republicans who will turn out more of the new voters we register."

"We've learned from our mistakes," responded state Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff. Among things state Democrats are doing differently this year, he said, is making sure there's a more aggressive effort to keep their newly registered Democratic voters active, involved and interested in the process - including volunteer work for the party.

And there's something else, Jotkoff said. The Democratic lead in newly registered voters so far this year is a lot more than 60,000.

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