While most Americans are watching the Dow and other stock-market figures zig and zag, I have my eyes fixed on numbers that are headed straight up: voter registrations. Across the nation, election clerks and secretaries of state are regularly announcing historic increases in the ranks of registered voters.
For a pollster, this is a nightmare. It changes the composition of what we hopefully refer to as the likely voter population. All of a sudden, in many states we have hundreds of thousands of new voters with no prior vote history on the books. Will they vote or not? Which party will they vote for? Are they newly eligible young voters registering for the first time? Or instead, are they move-ins from other states?
The questions raised by new registrations won’t end this week. Typically, voters can register until Oct. 6 in most states, and even later in others. A week or more will be needed to update lists and tabulations. Until the final numbers are in, we cannot fully assess the implications for the election outcome, but the first reports don’t bode well for Republicans.
Consider Florida. Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1, that state registered 337,000 new voters under 35 years of age. Only 22 percent registered as Republicans, while more than twice as many, 45 percent, signed in for the first time as Democrats.
In Michigan, the new voters are not necessarily young, but most are thought to be Democratic in their voting intentions. ACORN — the activist Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — has acknowledged signing up more than 200,000 new voters in low-income, urban areas of that state.
In Colorado, ground zero in the U.S. Senate battle, Democrats have added new voters at a rate four times that of Republicans.
I could go on, but you get the gist of it: There are a lot of new voters, and most are likely Democratic voters.
Can Republicans find any sort of silver lining in this dark scenario? I think so. I had Kevin Berney and the wizards over at Aristotle Industries, purveyors of high-quality voter lists — we have happily used them for years — run some numbers at our request that are illuminating. We looked at 2004 and the new voters who came into the electorate that year. It was a lot like this year — Rock-the-Vote and all. Bush-hate was in full flower and the Democrats were spoiling to take back America after the Republicans “stole” it during the 2000 election.
In Florida, for example, 384,000 new voters under 30, mostly Democrats, were registered between January and November of 2004. More than 463,00 new Democrats were registered statewide that year, compared with only 395,000 Republicans. So the pattern of Democratic advantage in 2004 was as it is today, promising Democrats an advantage going into Election Day.
But something important happened after registration in 2004. Many of the newly registered Democrats and young voters failed to follow through and vote. In fact, 63 percent of the just-registered voters under 30 never cast a ballot, and 55 percent of the new Democrats didn’t go to the polls. Of 194,000 new African-Americans registered in Florida during 2004, 61 percent never hung a chad.
Checking other states revealed similar results in 2004. In Michigan, more than 38 percent of the new voters under 30 didn’t see the inside of their precinct’s polling place. In Colorado, 48 percent of freshly minted Democrats never cast a vote.
There’s an old Western proverb: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
The Obama campaign and Democratic constituency groups are furiously pressing their advantage in the last week of voter registration, but you have to wonder whether all their efforts are worth it.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.