Sen. Barack Obama‘s presidential campaign in Georgia spent the weekend training more than 2,500 volunteers for a statewide push to register voters and boost Election Day turnout, a massive grass-roots mobilization that is part of the campaign’s national strategy to drive up the mostly Democratic black vote and capture longtime Republican strongholds.
Mr. Obama has vowed to increase black voter participation by 30 percent, which likely would redraw the electoral map by reclaiming once-Democratic Southern states - including Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia - that turned Republican in 1964.
“The Obama campaign sees a huge opportunity in Georgia,” campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro said, citing record high unemployment and inflation that left Peach State voters “tired of the failed Bush policies.”
“To win in Georgia, we have dispatched staff into all 159 counties in the state,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Volunteers will work a neighbor-to-neighbor program, where they are trained, equipped and empowered to build a campaign organization in their own neighborhood. Our focus is to register and turn out all Georgians - young people, evangelicals, Republicans and independents seeking change and of course, our Democratic base.”
Georgia’s 15 electoral votes make it one of the largest prizes in the Deep South and key to Mr. Obama’s plan to diminish the importance of swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio by flipping traditionally Republican territory in the South and Southwest.
Blacks constitute a critical segment of the Democratic base, and Mr. Obama, an Illinois Democrat poised to become the country’s first black presidential nominee, regularly won more than 90 percent of black votes in the primaries.
In the Georgia primary, Mr. Obama routed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton 66 percent to 31 percent, a more-than-374,000-vote margin of victory. He won 88 percent of the black vote, which accounted for more than half of Democratic voters, according to exit polls.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, narrowly lost the state primary to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 34 to 32 percent. At the time, Mr. McCain struggled nationally to win support among evangelical voters, a key segment of the party base in Georgia.
Georgia Democrats say Mr. McCain is largely ignoring the state because of his weakness there. They point out that Mr. McCain attended a Republican National Committee fundraising event Monday in Atlanta but then flew out of the state without a single campaign event.
The McCain campaign said it had a strong volunteer organization and was “working for every vote” in Georgia. It also said it was confident the state would remain in the Republican column, especially once voters learn of Mr. Obama’s liberal views, including his opposition to offshore oil drilling and tax cuts for small businesses.
“It would take an incredible effort for [Mr. Obama] to overcome a record that is out of step with voters in Georgia,” McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “Georgia is a state with very traditional voters and a conservative [congressional] delegation. It is not likely that the most liberal senator in the U.S. Senate will win a state that is so out of step with his record and his rhetoric on the issues.”
Mr. McCain leads in most Georgia polls, topping Mr. Obama 48 percent to 39 percent among decided voters and 53 percent to 42 percent including voters leaning toward a candidate, a Rasmussen Reports survey late last month showed.
Mr. McCain has enjoyed an 8- to 14-point advantage in every Rasmussen poll this year.
A Democrat has not carried Georgia since 1992, when Bill Clinton narrowly topped President George H.W. Bush 44 percent to 43 percent.
Republican Bob Dole edged out President Clinton in Georgia in 1996, 47 percent to 46 percent, followed by George Bush beating Democrat Al Gore in 2000, 55 percent to 43 percent, and John Kerry in 2004, 58 percent to 41 percent.
However, the Peach State was also the only Southern state to back President Carter, a former Georgia governor, in his failed 1980 re-election bid against Ronald Reagan.
In 2004, blacks accounted for 25 percent of the voters, and 88 percent of them broke for John Kerry, compared to 12 percent for President Bush. Yet Mr. Bush prevailed, capturing more than three-quarters of the white vote.
Increasing turnout among any group by 30 percent remains a herculean task.
That reality is not lost upon the Obama campaign, which has cast a wide net in Georgia to pull in young voters and college-educated professionals who have gravitated toward Mr. Obama.
However, he also must shore up support among working-class whites in rural and small-town communities, who may be reluctant to cast ballots for a black presidential candidate.
A recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll showed that 8 percent of whites nationwide said they would be very uncomfortable voting for a black presidential candidate, including 16 percent of Democrats who said they have some reservations.
“Obviously, it is going to be hard work for Democrats,” Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Martin Matheny said. “[But] this is a game-changing year. … They are going to change the way the electoral map looks. Georgia is definitely going to be in play.”
The number of registered voters in the state has climbed 5.8 percent to 4.7 million since January, including an 8.6 percent increase in black voters and a 3.9 percent increase in white voters, according to state records.
Blacks make up about 28 percent of the electorate compared to whites, who make up 65 percent, about the same as a year ago.
University of Georgia political science professor Audrey A. Haynes said the increases in both black and white voter registration in the South likely would produce a wash at the polls as far as racial voting patterns are concerned.
“This has been a traditionally conservative state. Democrats don’t do very well in Georgia,” she said. “In terms of strategy, it doesn’t hurt to try. … Georgia may not go blue, but it may be a lot closer than people expect.”