Primary fight helping Democratic Party build its base

WASHINGTON — In Indiana, which holds its Democratic primary in two weeks, more than 150,000 people have registered to vote in just the past four months, and state officials are preparing for a record turnout.

In Virginia, the state Democratic Party has raised nearly twice as much money this year as it had at this point in the last presidential election, thanks largely to Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton battling for the primary there, party officials say.

And in Pennsylvania, Tuesday's key Democratic primary has helped the Democrats build a lead of 1-million registered voters over the Republicans.

As Obama and Clinton claw through this unusually long and increasingly nasty primary season, the central question for many Democrats is not who will win, but whether the party will be helped or harmed by the fight.

It's a legitimate question. But for a party that was the 98-pound weakling when it came to targeting voters and getting them to the polls in the past two presidential elections, this year's extended battle is helping the Democrats build some much-needed muscle.

Clearly, having more people register to vote in the Democratic primaries, as state officials across the country have reported, means more likely Democratic voters in the fall, but the long nomination fight also has produced structural improvements for the party's apparatus. In an era when major elections can be lost by tiny margins, these improvements could add hundreds of thousands of Democratic votes in November, experts said.

"I do think it's a mixed bag," said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic consultant who is neutral in the race. "But if I had to weigh one side against the other, up to now it's been a benefit against a deficit."

• • •

In recent election years, the presidential nominees have been anointed by early February after a short sprint, as Republican Sen. John McCain was this year. The ongoing race between Obama and Clinton, however, has forced both candidates to develop robust operations in nearly every state in the country, save Florida and Michigan.

Here's a rundown of what that may mean when the nominee is chosen and the Democrats turn their attention to the general election:

Boots on the ground: Both campaigns have recruited armies of volunteers and built organizations in key states much earlier than is normal. This is especially true for Ohio and Pennsylvania, which were battleground states in the general elections of 2004 and 2000 but had been meaningless for choosing the Democratic nominee those years.

This year, they were crucial. Clinton and Obama have strong statewide organizations in those states — and the volunteers to back them up — that the party can tap for November.

Obama and Clinton also have run TV ads in many states already, introducing themselves to casual voters months earlier than is normal for a presidential campaign.

"I'm sure McCain wishes he had some compelling reason for being in Pennsylvania and building a campaign there," said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of politics and government at George Mason University in northern Virginia.

More Voters. Typically, voter registration grows steadily throughout a presidential election year, then jumps shortly before the general election, said McDonald, an expert on elections and voter turnout.

But because so many states have mattered in the Democratic nomination, registrations surged early this year instead.

In some states, the numbers are huge. In Pennsylvania, nearly 500,000 more Democrats have registered to vote than had at this point in 2004, while the number of registered Republicans has fallen by nearly 44,000.

In Colorado, a reliably Republican state the Democrats have designs on this year, there are almost 28,000 more registered Democrats now than there were four years ago. The number of registered Republicans has dropped by about 30,000.

And in North Carolina, which votes May 6, the Democratic rolls have gained 190,000 voters, while the Republicans have added 180,000.

Not only will these gains allow Democrats to identify hundreds of thousands more likely Democratic voters, the gains also give the party months, rather than weeks, to tap them for volunteers and donations.

"When people go and participate in a Democratic primary, you can find them. You know who they are and you can organize them," Devine said. "That helps you build a party at every level, and helps you win elections at every level.

"In terms of direct mail, in terms of telephone, in terms of other forms of communication, it gives you a huge leg up. And that will be first realized … this November on the Democratic side."

Better mechanics. For years, the Democratic Party's strength among unions and in urban centers helped them turn out voters. That advantage was gone by 2004, however, as Republicans found new ways to mine data and target potential supporters.

This year, the Democratic National Committee has spent $1.5-million to link and coordinate the hodgepodge of voter files maintained by its state parties. The Obama and Clinton campaigns have been leasing those voter rolls and updating them as they go, making for more accurate lists of prospective supporters for the fall, said Stacie Paxton, press secretary for the DNC.

Meanwhile, the primaries have been a boon to Democrats in states that normally don't hear from presidential candidates until summer. In Virginia, having Obama and Clinton both campaign for the February primary boosted fundraising for the state Democratic Party, spokeswoman Danae Jones said. It has raised about $1.25-million this year, compared with $750,000 at this point in 2004, she said.

"Just from a practical standpoint, we've captured more people because of this who we can reach out to when there is a nominee, and that will only help the presidential nominee, it helps (U.S. Senate candidate) Mark Warner, and it helps all our down-ballot candidates," Jones said.

• • •

Of course, this extended slog isn't all butterflies and puppy-dog kisses.

Two large battleground states, Florida and Michigan, have been left out, thanks to a pledge by the candidates not to campaign there after the states scheduled their primaries earlier than DNC rules allow. Neither Obama nor Clinton has had the time to begin making up for lost ground in those crucial states.

McCain, by contrast, campaigned vigorously in Florida for the January primary, which he won, and he has been a frequent visitor since. He also has campaigned in Michigan.

Democratic consultants and party activists disagree about how badly their eventual nominee — whoever it is — is being hurt by the contretemps between Obama and Clinton.

Those who contend the damage is minimal say that whatever the two throw at each other, the Republicans are going to throw much worse.

But others argue that ugly characterizations of a candidate build up over time, like drifting snow against the barn door. The campaign, particularly as it becomes more negative, has given McCain and the Republicans a head start on convincing general election voters that Clinton is untrustworthy and difficult, or that Obama is elitist and liberal.

"On a mechanical level, it's a net plus," Anita Dunn, a Democratic media consultant, said of the long primary fight. "But it's the message level where it's problematic."

Dunn, who is helping Obama, was among those grimacing during Wednesday's debate in Philadelphia. Obama faced attacks from Clinton as well as sharp questions from the ABC News moderators about some sore points, including whether he had adequately distanced himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

"At some point, after 21 debates, one candidate is going to be behind and one candidate is going to be ahead, and the one who's behind is going to have one goal, which is to tear down the candidate who is ahead," Dunn said. "People are getting tired of this, and they're worried."

Prominent Democrats, including DNC chairman Howard Dean last week, increasingly say the nominee should be known as soon as the final primaries are held on June 3, if not earlier. Many Democratic strategists say a poor showing by Clinton in Pennsylvania on Tuesday could effectively end her campaign. But that's what they said before her victories in Texas and Ohio, too.

One more debate has been scheduled, for April 27 in Raleigh, N.C., a week before the primary there. Clinton already has committed to it, but Obama has not. His supporters are hoping he won't have to.

Times researcher Melissa August contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Pa. primary

When: Tuesday

At stake: 158 delegates for Democrats; 74 delegates for Republicans

Registered voters: 4.2-million Democrats; 3.2-million Republicans

Recent polling: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton leads Sen. Barack Obama by an average of 5.6 points.

Notable: Obama has spent $7-million on statewide advertising to Clinton's $2.7-million, according to Evan Tracey, of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Delegates race: Obama has 1,645, Clinton has 1,504.

Sources: Associated Press, RealClearPolitics.com, U.S. News & World Report

Primary fight helping Democratic Party build its base 04/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 3:40pm]

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