President Obama did a spectacular job in 2008 of registering and turning out tens of thousands of new Virginia voters — but the pace of registrations this year has dropped precipitously ahead of his re-election bid.
In fact, new voters registered at a slower rate during the first half of this year than any of the previous three presidential elections in Virginia. Other battleground states such as Florida and North Carolina are seeing the same trend, which political operatives and elections analysts attribute to a cratering of enthusiasm for Democrats this year.
Still to be seen, however, is whether that means Mr. Obama will have a smaller pool of voters from which to push for turnout in November.
“One — it’s relative. It’s not surprising you’d have low new numbers coming off a record,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. “But also, Obama hasn’t excited young voters as much this time around as he had in ‘08.”
The number of registered voters in Virginia jumped by 134,937 in the first six months of 2008. But this year, the increase was just 81,427. In 2004, the increase in the first six months was 99,705, and in 2000, it was 126,464.
For the entire year in 2008, registered voters increased by about a half-million in Virginia, bringing the total to a record at the time of more than 5 million. Mr. Obama won the state with 53 percent of the vote and nearly 2 million votes — better than any previous presidential candidate.
Democratic sources said their voter-registration efforts in the state never really stopped after the 2008 election and that they have been signing up voters continuously — one possible explanation for no big election-year surge.
But the number of registered voters increased by 245,411 from the end of 2009 to June 2012 — or well less than the increase of 323,403 from July 1 to Nov. 29, 2008, when Virginia’s rolls reached 5,044,170.
As of June 30 this year, 5,216,252 voters were registered.
“Last time, my door was knocked on more than once for registrants in the house, and by Democratic organizers,” a well-connected Virginia Republican operative said. “I haven’t seen any of that this time. In 2008, you felt like you were being inundated. They were everywhere.”
A Quinnipiac University poll this month had Mr. Obama running even in the state with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who closed an 8-percentage-point gap since March. Mr. Romney also held an advantage in enthusiasm, with 46 percent of Republicans saying they are excited to vote this year, compared with 38 percent of Democrats.
“There’s clearly an enthusiasm gap amongst base Democrats, which is probably part of the reason why that outside group is so desperately trying to register dead people, dogs and cats,” quipped longtime GOP strategist Chris LaCivita.
Mr. LaCivita was referring to the recent discovery that the D.C.-based Voter Participation Center had erroneously sent registration material to hundreds, and possibly thousands, of ineligible voters in Virginia, including infants, the deceased and pets.
But Chris Saxman, a former Republican state delegate, said he didn’t read too much into the numbers. He said Mr. Obama was so successful at registering voters in 2008 that it would have been impossible to sustain that high pace.
“If you’re increasing at a decreasing rate, you’re still increasing,” he said. “At some point, you have to reach the end of the diving board. I think people might be reading this wrongly, because the turnout is what matters based on the 2008 baseline. It could be a push.”