Politics & Government

A surge of new voters in Pennsylvania is likely to help Obama

Sen. Barack Obama speaks with the press during a shopping visit at The Shop Right Store in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in April 2008.
Sen. Barack Obama speaks with the press during a shopping visit at The Shop Right Store in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in April 2008. (Bonnie Weller / Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

BRISTOL, Pa. — Sandra Jones, an unemployed transit worker, and college student Christy Race are part of 2008's biggest electoral phenomenon — an army of people who've never voted but are swarming to the polls this year.

Jones, 48, is under no illusion that an election can instantly get her a good job, but at least it offers hope. "Barack Obama reminds me of John F. Kennedy," she said. "There's something about his demeanor and the way he speaks."

Race, 19, finds Obama unusually inspiring, too — and, she said, Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is simply unacceptable. "She's too into politics, and I think Bill Clinton's controlling her," Race said.

Race and Jones are part of the throng of new voters who are overwhelming polls across the nation. When Pennsylvania holds its crucial April 22 presidential primary, voter participation is again expected to surge.

Since January, Pennsylvania has registered nearly 210,000 new voters. Seventy percent registered Democratic and 18 percent registered Republican. The rest signed up with other parties.

Experts said the new registrants in Pennsylvania are following a pattern that's been evident all year, one that's tilted in favor of Democrats in general and Obama in particular.

"I'm just glued to the TV set whenever Obama speaks," said Frank Pellicone, 59, a commercial real estate manager from Yardley. The Vietnam veteran and lifelong Republican, who said former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the only other politician who intrigues him so much, said he switched simply because "I'm ready for change."

The influx of new voters isn't only a Democratic phenomenon. In New Hampshire, some 33,000 voters ages 18 to 29 cast ballots in the nation's first Republican primary, up 10,000 from 2000, the last contested GOP primary. Missouri and Texas also showed big increases in young GOP voters.

Pennsylvania will hold a GOP primary on April 21, and Natalie Johnson, a voter-registration organizer at Temple University, said she still sees young people interested in registering Republican. "They want change, too," she said.

But far more young people voted in Democratic than in Republican primaries. In 14 of the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday states, the edge was more than 2 to 1, and the trend accelerated once presumptive GOP nominee John McCain virtually clinched the party nomination that day.

One clear group of new Democrats are African-Americans, who like Jones, have been motivated by Obama, the first black presidential candidate to have demonstrated such political strength.

"I never really thought voting mattered," Jones said. She was out of work for a year and a half, got another job and now has been unemployed for about five months.

A better economy, she figured, will somehow help her and everyone around her. "To make that change, though, I'm convinced we need to get out and vote," Jones said.

African-American turnout in Democratic contests has soared in state after state. Compared to the 2004 primary season, it's up 34 percent in California, 151 percent in Louisiana, 240 percent in Ohio, 308 percent in Texas and 115 percent in South Carolina, according to preliminary estimates compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The big cause is clear: "It's Obama-driven," said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the center.

The largest group of new voters, though, appears to be those between the ages of 18 and 29. In Georgia, for instance, while black turnout jumped 85 percent since 2004, it was up 180 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds. Other states have seen a similar pattern.

Experts for years have labeled young voters the American electorate's sleeping giants, engaged in community and charitable activities but feeling no real connection to the political system.

This year, though, in state after state they've been pouring into election booths in numbers rarely seen in recent years.

In 2000, among 18- to 29-year-olds, nearly 575,000 voted in the California primaries; this year, 850,000 did. The Georgia number tripled; so did Massachusetts', traditionally one of the states where young people were already active.

"The thing young voters most say they're looking for is change," said Emily Kirby, a senior research associate at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, which compiled the data.

In most states, young voters want to vote Democratic, and so far, they have overwhelmingly sided with Obama — by margins of 20 percentage points or more over Clinton in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, Utah and elsewhere.

But analysts added that it would be a mistake to attribute the spike in youth turnout and registration just to Obama.

This is an unusual election, in which "neither party has an incumbent and there's a subtext of recession and war," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which analyzes voter turnout. Turnout traditionally jumps when times are tough.

Sujatha Jahagirdar saw other factors at work.

The director of the Student Public Interest Research Groups' New Voters Project said groups like hers have become more sophisticated in how they get out the vote.

"If you apply the same kind of outreach tactics to younger voters as older voters, like face-to-face contact or phone banks, it works," Jahagirdar said.

Candidates, she said, are also more actively courting the youth vote by "focusing more on issues young people care about," such as college tuition costs. And Internet sites have become more sophisticated in recent years, with blogs and quick interaction, giving the Internet generation more of a sense that the campaigns understand them.

All the experts make sure they offer a big asterisk to all the swollen voter and registration numbers: They can't guarantee the surge will continue into the general election.

"Clearly they wouldn't have the same enthusiasm if Obama was not the nominee," said Bositis. "If the enthusiasm isn't there, it doesn't take much to say you're not voting."

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