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Obama’s costly investment not yielding new voters

US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrived by bus to speak at a campaign event Wednesday at the Alliant Energy Amphitheater in Dubuque, Iowa.Larry Downing/REUTERS

Across Florida on Wednesday, President Obama’s campaign scheduled 53 field events to register voters. Last weekend in Virginia, there were at least 78 such events — typical of drills in the past several months on behalf of the incumbent Democrat in the battleground states that are likely to decide the Nov. 6 election.

President Obama Wednesday in in Dubuque, Iowa.Larry Downing/REUTERS

But a Globe analysis of voter registration data in swing states reveals scant evidence that the massive undertaking is yielding much fresh support for Obama.

In stark contrast to 2008, when a strong partisan tailwind propelled Democratic voter registration to record levels, this year Republican and independent gains are far outpacing those of Democrats.


In Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada — tossup states where direct election-year comparisons could be drawn — the numbers are striking. Democratic rolls increased by only 39,580, less than one-tenth the amount at the comparable point in the 2008 election.

At the same time, GOP registration has jumped by 145,085, or more than double for the same time four years ago. Independent registration has shown an even stronger surge, to 229,500, almost three times the number at this point in 2008.

The Obama campaign downplayed the Globe’s findings. “The fact is, there are currently many more Democrats registered in battleground states now than there were before the 2008 primary campaign began, which means there are fewer eligible voters left to register because of the gains we made in 2008,” campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said in an e-mail.

“We have largely preserved the huge gains we built in 2007 and 2008 and increased our advantage in some areas, while Republicans have failed to make significant gains despite having the primary to themselves this year,” he said.

Jan Leighley, an American University professor of political science with a specialty in voter turnout, sees merit in the Obama camp’s explanation. “To say ‘We did a lot in 2008 and we’re not going to repeat those numbers in terms of a percentage increase’ is a legitimate point,” said Leighley. “Registration is not the endgame; the endgame for the campaign is to get people to the polls,” she said.


SOURCES: Secretaries of state in Florida, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada; Board of Elections in North Carolina. Grapic: James Abundis/Globe Staff

Democratic gains in 2008 were substantial. That year, registration increased in the states studied by a combined 482,797 for Democrats, compared with 60,620 for Republicans and 79,719 for voters not enrolled in any party.

The ranks of unaffiliated voters have been growing and Republicans have been enjoying electoral success since Obama’s election. In the 2010 midterm elections, the GOP gained 63 seats and control of the House of Representatives. In 2009 and 2010, Republicans wrested seven governorships from Democrats in battleground states, all carried by Obama four years ago.

Perhaps the most dramatic reversal has occurred in Iowa, a quadrennial tossup state which launched the Obama candidacy in the 2008 caucuses and which he won that November by 9 points. Republicans this year ended the Democrats’ six-year registration advantage. Since the leadoff caucuses in January, Democratic registration this year has dropped by 45,228, while GOP registration has increased by 5,671.

Some Democrats say voters who are officially categorized as inactive will, once added to active voter lists, allow Democrats to maintain a slight registration edge. Inactive voters are still eligible to vote.

Many voters were designated inactive after precincts and districts were redrawn based on the 2010 Census, and their notifications were returned as undeliverable, said Chad ­Olsen, spokesman for the Iowa secretary of state’s office.


But Olsen was not sure that would significantly increase Democratic totals. “I’m not sure why Democrats would be excited about the number of inactive voters they have. Most of them have moved,” he said.

This week, Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, released a study of eight battleground states that illustrated the rise in independent voters since the 2008 election. The report, titled “The I’s Have it,” found that based on recent data, Democratic registration has declined by more than 800,000, or 5.2 percent; Republican enrollments were down about 80,000, or 0.7 percent; and independents were up 486,677, or 6.4 percent, in those states. It attributed some of the disparity between the parties to the Republican presidential nominating contest, which activated GOP voters.

“We’re seeing voters being turned off by both parties but not by voting” itself, said ­Michelle Diggles, senior policy adviser at Third Way and a coauthor of the report.

Among the key Third Way findings: As many Hispanics in Florida are registering as independents as in both parties combined, and independent voter registration is soaring in North Carolina’s two most populous counties, which helped nudge the state narrowly to Obama in 2008.

The Globe’s analysis showed that in North Carolina, African-American registration has grown steadily to nearly a quarter of the electorate since 2008 when black voters helped Obama carry the state by a razor-thin margin.


In New Hampshire, another key state where independents hold the balance of power, Democratic registration has dropped by 7,915, or 3.5 percent, since the presidential primary on Jan. 10, according to figures provided by the secretary of state’s office. Republican registration dipped by 4,737, or 1.8 percent, while so-called undeclared, or independent, voters increased by 5,885, or 1.9 percent. Comparable figures for the same period in 2008 were not available.

Battleground states Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan do not have party registration.

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at bmooney@