With less than three months to go before the general election, and with polls showing Florida in a dead heat, Barack Obama's presidential campaign is hoping to tap a well of what it says are 591,000 black Floridians who are not registered to vote.
Nationwide, they say, the number is close to eight million.
To get to those voters, the campaign has deployed field organizers to offices in majority black neighborhoods, including on Seventh Avenue and Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, in Hollywood, North Miami, and a new office that's set to open in Miami’s Liberty City.
But the Florida campaign is also relying heavily on thousands of unpaid canvassers, phone bankers and amateur fundraisers across the state; a force multiplier that the campaign hopes will help reverse declining black voter turnout since the contested 2000 election.
“We try to find voters where they live, where they work, where they're taking some time to do community service,” said Adora Andy, director of black media outreach for the Florida campaign. “Whatever we can do to reach out to voters who have not been engaged in the process.”
Democrats enjoy a 42 percent to 37 percent voter registration advantage over Republicans in Florida, and that advantage has swollen in recent years. According to the state's elections division, between December and May, some 30,000 new voters registered as Democrats in Broward County alone, compared to 7,000 new Republicans and 6,000 Independents.
Statewide during the first six months of 2008, 106,508 new Democrats registered to vote versus just 16,686 for the GOP. And yet, Florida has become increasingly difficult for Democrats to win, since many registered Democrats in the northern part of the state tend to vote Republican.
Another problem: Since 2000, black Democrats – particularly in South Florida – have shown declining enthusiasm for going to the polls. And in recent years, the state's largest counties — Miami-Dade and Broward — have failed to deliver enough votes for Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in both counties by wide margins.
Sen. John Kerry lost Florida by 380,978 votes in his losing bid to unseat President George W. Bush in 2004. That year, Broward County underperformed the state in terms of turnout, 67.1 percent versus 74.2 percent. Had the state's second most populous county matched statewide turnout, another 111,957 voters would have gone to the polls.
And despite a 16 to 1 Democratic registration advantage over Republicans, black voter turnout in 2004 was estimated at a still lower 60 percent. This means that more than 430,000 black Floridians failed to cast ballots, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which studies black voting trends.
The Obama campaign hopes to reverse that trend.
“We do feel strongly that if we can get people on the rolls, we can get them out on Election Day,” said Rick Wade, the campaign's national director of African-American outreach, on a conference call for minority media July 30.
During the call, Michelle Obama made an appeal to black voters to remain engaged.
“If people don't vote, they're basically saying that things as they are are fine; that my vote doesn't matter, that I'm just one person, [or] that I can't make a difference. What we have to realize is that we can't accept that,” Mrs. Obama said.
The campaign's black voter registration strategy is focused on small, neighborhood businesses, including beauty salons and barber shops, which were at the heart of a nationwide registration drive that kicked off last Saturday, Aug. 9.
Lester Jones, who owns the Neighborhood Unisex Salon, which shares a building with the Obama campaign's field office on Sistrunk, said he planned to begin the process of restoring his voting rights so that he can cast a ballot for Obama in November.
“I never thought we would see this day, that a man like Senator Obama would be competing for the highest office in the country,” Jones said.
Jones, who has a son serving in the military, said he hopes a President Obama would bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.
Customers and barbers at the shop agreed, unanimously stating that they were registered voters, including one man who was registered by an Obama volunteer that day. All said they planned to vote for Obama in November.
CAMPAIN USES SELF-DIRECTED VOLUNTEERS
To keep volunteers engaged, the Obama campaign has adopted an egalitarian model, giving volunteers wide latitude to design their own fundraising and voter mobilization events, which can be found and listed at will on the campaign's website, fl.barackobama.com.
Volunteers can walk into any campaign office to sign up, or phone bank from home, by pulling up “call lists” from the site. The campaign planned to place 50,000 phone bank calls from campaign offices across the state this week.
Jessie Adderley, a 59-year-old school employee said she put in nearly 16 hours a week for the campaign over the summer, and she plans to continue – though at reduced hours — now that school is set to begin.
Adderley, who had never volunteered for a political campaign, has canvassed her Dorsey-Riverbend neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale and also registered voters in the northeastern part of the city.
She also helps the campaign by making phone calls to potential voters. She said she got involved after an Obama canvasser knocked on her door.
“Before they even had a campaign office here, they popped up in my neighborhood,” Adderley said. “And when the guy came to my door and asked if I wanted to volunteer, I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Adderley said the reasons for her participation are personal.
“I am a product of Broward County from the Jim Crow, segregation days,” Adderley said, “and for me to live long enough to see this, and to have a person of Obama's status running for president of the United States, is very exciting. I just want to get out and help.”
James “Jimmy” Sinclair, 50, of Hollywood, who volunteers for the campaign there, said during his canvassing, he has met only one
Obama skeptic: a woman who had supported Sen. Hillary Clinton, and didn't intend to switch her allegiance to Obama.
“I asked her, ‘What kind of future do you want for your children, given what we have been through in the last 8 years?’ ”
Sinclair, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica 21 years ago, said the woman was eventually convinced.
In addition to the volunteers, the campaign plans to launch an early and absentee vote push targeting the black community, with the dual goal of running up Obama's vote total, and turning as many of those voters as possible into new volunteers, Andy said.
“What we know about African Americans is that we do a lot better when we early-vote,” said Andy, who worked in six state primaries for Sen. Obama before coming to Florida.
“There's a tendency to wait until Election Day, but we'd rather have you work that day, picking up elderly folks, working at the polls … there's so much more that you can do if you vote early.”
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Jessie Adderley