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In Fla., Parties Push to Register Voters, Get Them to Polls

September 30, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In the second segment in a series about Florida's continued status as a political battleground, Judy Woodruff examines efforts to register new voters in the Sunshine State and what both parties' plans are to get out the vote come November.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the second of our reports from Florida on the presidential campaign. Judy Woodruff’s subject tonight is voter turnout.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every week for the past four months at the Miami-Dade County auditorium, there have been three ceremonies, one after the other, like this one last Friday morning.

Emotions ran the gamut, from tears to cheers, as 1,200 immigrants from 73 countries pledged loyalty to their new home country.

Within minutes, these brand-new U.S. citizens, more than half from Latin America, walked out into the bright South Florida sunlight to confront arguably the most important responsibility and privilege of citizenship: registering to vote.

VOLUNTEER: Would you like to register to vote, ma’am?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Greeting them were dozens of representatives of the McCain and Obama campaigns, urging them to register, and, critically, to declare a party affiliation.

New citizens are among the main targets of both presidential campaigns in a race that has drawn even in Florida. Polls show a small advantage for John McCain has shrunk further in the past couple of weeks.

And with the deadline for new voter sign-up looming October 6th, there’s even more urgency to the competition.

Did you choose a political party?

RONALDO GARCIA, Registered Republican: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which one?

RONALDO GARCIA: Republican.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why?

RONALDO GARCIA: Because I feel related, you know, I like it.

NIRANJAN VAIDYA, Registered Democrat: It’s important that, you know, our citizens can make our voice heard. And it’s there that, you know, in a democracy, in a country where there’s a democracy, every voice counts. And this is a country where democracy matters.

'Micro-targeting' in Florida

Steve Schale
Director, Obama Florida Campaign
Florida is a home to close elections. And we don't have to move the entire state for Barack Obama. We just have to do a little bit better than John Kerry and a little better than Al Gore.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The largest ethnic group up for grabs here: Hispanic voters. They used to be mostly from Cuba and, driven by anti-Castro sentiment, voted reliably Republican.

But increasingly, the younger generation of Cuban-Americans is supporting Democrats. And the newest Latino voters moving into Florida from Puerto Rico and other Latin American nations are also trending more Democratic.

SUSAN MACMANUS, University of South Florida: Percentage-wise, in actual numbers, Democratic Hispanics now outnumber Republicans for the first time in forever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida says it's important for the campaigns to focus on Hispanics, but they must also focus on other voter groups, too, older folks, young people, Jewish voters, and African-Americans.

SUSAN MACMANUS: We're to the point in Florida where every single block of voters can say, "If you don't win us over, you're not going to win the state." And that's what makes it so important to do micro-targeting in Florida.

VOLUNTEER: Hi. Sorry, I'm with the Obama campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every day for the past few months in South Bay and other towns across Florida, volunteers, like Lavelle Franklin, and paid workers, like Nkasi Okafor, have been going door to door to door, to encourage people to vote for Barack Obama.

Franklin and Okafor, the first paid campaign worker in this economically depressed part of the state, say this is not the usual voter outreach effort. This time, they say, there's serious follow-up.

NKASI OKAFOR, Obama Campaign Staffer: We go back to them. Hey, have you voted? Have you voted? Do you need help? Do you need an absentee ballot? Do you need a ride to the polls?

So it's more just taking an investment in the person, instead of just their vote. It's like, how are you going to make it to the polls?

LAVELLE FRANKLIN, Obama Campaign Volunteer: Yesterday, I registered a man who was blind and whose wife thought that, you know, he couldn't vote because he was blind. And, you know, I -- he was a strong Obama supporter. He just didn't know how to negotiate the system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's all part of a carefully drawn plan to attract more African-Americans, Hispanics, and young people, and to boost already likely popular vote margins in South Florida.

Obama's state campaign director Steve Schale says their 50 offices around the state and more than 10,000 volunteers is unheard of for Democrats.

STEVE SCHALE, State Director, Obama Florida Campaign: Florida is a home to close elections. And we don't have to move the entire state for Barack Obama. We just have to do a little bit better than John Kerry and a little better than Al Gore.

Registering voters

Jim Greer
Chair, Republican Party of Florida
The other issue to remember is we've been out-registered in 2000 and 2004, but on Election Day, on Election Day, more Republicans went to the polls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In addition, the Obama campaign is reliably reported to have more than 300 paid staffers in Florida, contributing to an impression they are out-organizing the competition.

But the head of the state Republican Party, Jim Greer, says he doesn't buy it.

JIM GREER, Chair, Republican Party of Florida: On several occasions, I've asked my staff to help me find and locate all these victory offices of the Obama campaign, all these thousands of paid staff people, and we can't find them. I think it's a marketing ploy; I think it's a phantom organization in the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For its part, the McCain organization is sponsoring dozens of phone banks, like this one in Miami. Jim Greer also discounts Democrats' success in registering more new voters than the Republicans.

JIM GREER: The Democrats are registering anybody with a heartbeat, whether they intend to vote or whether they don't.

The venues that they're using to register voters at are venues that typically those people would not participate in the political process. They're simply signing a form that says, "Yes, yes, I'd like to be a Democrat." So the Democrats use that as a P.R. method, too.

The other issue to remember is we've been out-registered in 2000 and 2004, but on Election Day, on Election Day, more Republicans went to the polls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Greer is correct that in the last two presidential campaigns the Democrats' advantage in new registrations didn't turn the tide on Election Day, but independent observers, like Susan MacManus, say that this year the Republicans are playing catch-up.

SUSAN MACMANUS: The bottom line is they simply don't have the money that the Obama campaign has. They don't have the paid organizers on the ground. They have started to open headquarters, but they've come a little bit late to the game.

But the Republicans in Florida say, "That's OK. We'll be where we need to be by Election Day, because we already had a very good organization in place tracking back to 2004, and the Democrats are simply catching up with us."

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Republican organizer Greg Truax says he even sees improvement in the GOP effort.

GREG TRUAX, McCain Campaign Volunteer: This is the best coordinated campaign I've ever seen between the Republican Party of Florida and the McCain campaign. We're working actively. We're phone banking at night. We're doing our precinct walks, and we have a very fired-up and excited grassroots operation.

Targeting Jewish voters

JUDY WOODRUFF: One group the campaigns are battling over is Jewish voters who used to go reliably Democratic, but this year some have been reluctant to embrace Obama.

HALIE SOIFER, Obama Campaign Staffer: I am here to talk about Sen. Obama's record on Israel. It is my goal that everybody in the Jewish community -- and I am talking to groups throughout the state -- makes a decision on November 4th based on the truth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At an upscale Jewish community center in Boca Raton, Obama staffer Halie Soifer tackles questions from skeptics and supporters.

HALIE SOIFER: The senator has never been a Muslim. He is a lifelong Christian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Independent pollster Jim Kane says the Democrats have reason to worry.

JIM KANE, Independent Pollster: It's probably been the diciest thing, I think, for the Obama campaign. It's still not 100 percent solid for him. There's still a lot of doubts.

There's still a lot of the rumors about, you know, is he really a Muslim? Is he not? And there have been some kind of -- there's been racial differences between Jewish -- the population and the black population over historically in this country.

So, you know, all of that has come into play here. And then, of course, the early -- the early saying -- the Republicans were at least saying, is that Barack Obama wasn't as pro-Israel as John McCain. And whether that's true or not, I don't know, but certainly that was -- a lot of people had doubts about him early on.

SARAH SILVERMAN, Comedian: If Barack Obama doesn't become the next president of the United States, I'm going to blame the Jews.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats are also trying humor, with Internet videos like this one from comedian Sarah Silverman.

SARAH SILVERMAN: I'm making this video to urge you -- all of you -- to schlep over to Florida and convince your grandparents to vote Obama.

Unpredictability in Florida

Donna Shalala
President, University of Miami
One way or another, I think these young people are going to turn out, particularly freshmen who are voting for the first time, and that's who's living on college campuses who are registering.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The campaigns are both trying to mobilize armies of young first-time voters. At a McCain field office in Tampa, college Republicans were calling their classmates, urging them to turn out for an event in the city last week.

We found University of Miami students tailgating at a football game Saturday. Several said this is their first time voting and they're registered in Florida, rather than in their home state.

Kate Drescher, a Democrat, hails from California.

KATE DRESCHER, Democrat: I knew California would vote the way I want it to vote. And I think that, with the close election in 2000, and even in 2004, that my vote might actually make more of a difference in the outcome if I registered in Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brendan Smith registered as a Republican after moving here from Illinois.

BRENDAN SMITH, Republican: It's such a better state than Illinois, because Illinois is so blue that I can have more of a decision here. So I registered right when I came here as a freshman. I've been registered in Florida for now two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The registration of so many new voters by both parties is adding to the unpredictability here in Florida ahead of Election Day. And for both campaigns, the focus will soon shift from signing up new voters to making sure they actually cast a ballot.

University of Miami President Donna Shalala says both campaigns have the potential to boost turnout among students.

DONNA SHALALA, President, University of Miami: One way or another, I think these young people are going to turn out, particularly freshmen who are voting for the first time, and that's who's living on college campuses who are registering.

Do I know whether they're going to vote for the Democrats or the Republicans? Four years ago, they split 50 percent-50 percent on this campus. We're heavily Hispanic, too. What will they do this year? I can't tell you at this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that means, with exactly five weeks to go, the get-out-the-vote effort in Florida is only going to intensify, with both campaigns targeting all voter blocs in the state.

The prize: Florida's 27 Electoral College votes. They will likely go to the campaign with the best ground game between now and Election Day.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow night, Judy explores where former Hillary Clinton supporters are headed.