Democrats claimed a big success after former President Bill Clinton campaigned across several college campuses in Arkansas recently, saying they signed up enough partisans to fill more than 4,000 volunteer shifts in their drive to re-elect Sen. Mark Pryor.
Now the concern is the “flake rate” — the people who fail to show up.
Welcome to the final stages of a costly voter turnout operation in Arkansas and other states that have competitive Senate races. These efforts loom as the Democrats’ possible last line of defense in a year when President Barack Obama is a political drag and turnout already would be far lower than in a presidential election year.
“We have to expand the electorate,” said Robert McLarty, in charge of the party’s effort to increase Arkansas’ turnout. Democrats say they have had dozens of offices across the state for months, a staff of about 100 and many more volunteers in a drive largely focused on African-Americans, young voters and women, particularly those who are unmarried.
There are a lot of potential voters to reach out to. Official figures show an overall increase of more than 8 percent in the state’s electorate this year.
Adding an additional layer of complexity, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a law passed by the Republican-led legislature requiring voters to show a photo identification before casting a ballot.
Republicans counter that they haven’t been sitting back idly in a state where Obama was routed both times he ran for the White House.
“It’s not like the Democrats get to operate in a vacuum. We get to run a campaign, too,” said Justin Brasell, campaign manager for Rep. Tom Cotton, who Republicans say leads Pryor very narrowly in the final weeks of their race.
Democrats “want to get as close to presidential election turnout among Democrats as they can. We want to do the same thing among Republicans,” he said. “Let’s see who gets closer.”
There are numerous indications of intensive voter registration efforts in other states, too. Democrats in particular are trying to increase participation from so-called fall-off voters — those who sit home in non-presidential years.
In Wake County in North Carolina, a state where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is in a close re-election race, officials have 5,000 voter registration applications yet to process. Overall, the flood is “comparable to what we get in a presidential year,” said Cherie Poucher, the director of elections in the county, which includes Raleigh.
Given the competing and overlapping voter registration drives, she said an unknown number of applications are duplicates.
The registration surge has spawned a lawsuit in Georgia. There, the New Georgia Project, which emphasizes registering African-Americans, says it has submitted over 80,000 new applications but about half of those people are not yet on the rolls.
The state is home to a pair of competitive races, including Democrat Michelle Nunn’s campaign against Republican David Perdue for an open Senate seat now in GOP hands and Jason Carter’s bid to oust Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.
In Arkansas, as elsewhere, the “ground game” goes on relatively quietly, overshadowed by the noisy barrage of TV attack ads.
Nearly two dozen political entities have aired ads in the Little Rock area alone. A total of $43 million has been spent statewide so far on television this year, according to one ad tracker, more than $25 per eligible voter. That includes about $24.9 million on Cotton’s side, $18.4 million to help Pryor.
Far more quietly, final figures from the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office show 131,196 newly registered voters since Jan. 1, an increase of about 8.4 percent.
David Ray, a spokesman for Cotton, said it is too soon to analyze the information, “But we’re certain it will be pretty favorable.”
However, Democrats say they accounted for most of the new voters.
Earlier this year, they gathered signatures for a ballot question on raising the state’s minimum wage. It is expected to pass, and an estimated 170,000 Arkansans will get a raise as a direct result.
An expansion of health care for the state’s low-income residents has meant coverage for 200,000 residents, another possible source of new Democratic voters.
As in other states, African-Americans are a key target. Census Bureau figures show they made up slightly more than 15 percent of Arkansas’ population in 2013, but party officials say they comprise only about 11 percent of the usual electorate.
African-Americans normally vote Democratic, notes state Rep. James Word of Pine Bluff, an economically distressed city about 50 miles from the capital. They accounted for 75 percent of 46,000 residents of his city in 2013, Census Bureau figures show.
“They simply can’t afford to stay at home, ” he said.
To make sure they don’t, Democrats have a local office for their get-out-the-vote program. It was all but empty at noontime on a recent weekday, but yard signs were neatly stacked along one wall and campaign literature bundled for door-to-door canvassers expected that evening.
Just as important for Pryor and the Democrats, Clinton will be in town on Sunday, one day before early voting opens.