We're now about a month away from the first caucus in the nomination race for president. The Democratic race in Iowa is currently neck and neck and neck. Obama, Clinton, and Edwards are all roughly even in the polls, and it's anybody's guess who will emerge the victor. This is partly due to the bizarre caucus rules in Iowa, it's partly due to the notorious instability of the state (victors often emerge late, in the last few days before the caucus), and it's partly due to the possible overestimation by all three candidates on who will actually turn out on caucus day.
Iowa caucuses are not normally well-attended events, and the percentage of eligible voters that actually turns out for the caucuses is often extremely small. But compounding this low turnout, all three candidacies are (to one extent or another) falling into the New Voters Expectations Disease, which Democrats seem to always be more susceptible to than Republicans.
Call them new voters, first time voters, never-voters, fresh faces, or demographics to be mined for votes -- call them whatever you will, but often Democrats get very very excited over a new group of people that is going to flood the polls... that just fail to show up.
Now, I'm not saying some new faces won't be seen in Iowa (and in other states as well) during the primary process. But will these new groups of energized voters actually show up in the numbers the campaigns are expecting or hoping for? That is the real question, and the answer to it, and the answer to which new groups of voters show up may be what decides the nomination.
To examine the second question, it's necessary to break it down by campaign. Each campaign has been mining for votes in different places, and how successful they are at motivating new demographics to the polls remains to be seen.
First, we have Hillary Clinton. Her campaign is built on a solid base of mainstream Democrats, people who love her husband, and people who think she's got the best chance to win. But the "new" votes she's been targeting are mostly single women voters. Single women don't normally vote in impressive numbers. They're usually too busy to vote, or too busy to even pay attention to politics in the first place. They are busy waitressing, or hairdressing, or being lawyers, or any of a thousand other jobs. And Hillary has been courting them, trying to win them over by convincing them they'll be better off under her administration. There is also a measure of "sisterhood" about this effort, and it cannot be denied that getting the chance to vote for a woman that actually has a chance of becoming president is a big draw for a lot of women that normally wouldn't bother to vote. The question is how many of them will do so.
Secondly, we look at Barack Obama. While he is fighting hard for the African-American vote (with Hillary) he's built a broader base of voters around his theme of "change" -- "Change is good, you'll get more change with me than anyone else, a vote for me is a vote for change." It's not a bad theme these days, and he could indeed ride it to the top. But the extra edge Obama is counting on is young voters. This easily fits in with the whole "change" theme, of course, as young voters are almost always in favor of change. He is trying to portray Hillary as a move into the past, and "one more baby boomer" for president, while he offers something newer, fresher, and without the possibility of old photos of him in bellbottoms. He has energetic crowds wherever he goes, made up to a large degree of very youthful faces. But again, this has been tried before, and young college-age and post-college-age voters are notorious for just not showing up on Election Day in the numbers people always expect.
John Edwards is the third campaign, and his may be the one least susceptible to the new voters disease -- largely because he already tried it, and it has mostly failed. He started his campaign strongly trolling for votes among the poor -- yet another group who votes in extremely low percentages. But because he launched this effort so early, he has already seen it fizzle out by not inciting enthusiasm and high poll numbers. Which is probably why he's backed away from the issue somewhat, and is more concerned now with his very strong union support. This is probably a better bet for him anyway, as union voters are organized and can be counted on to show up in droves. Whether that will be enough for him to win any early states remains up in the air, but at least he's not pinning his campaign's hopes (as much as he was) on groups of people who may disappointingly not show up when it counts.
There's a common thread running through all three of these groups of seemingly-untapped voters: they all vote in miserably low numbers because to a large extent, they have given up on politicians ever doing anything which could make their lives better. That sounds cynical, and it is. But it is also reality. "Why should I bother voting? Nothing ever changes" would be a statement most of these people would likely agree with.
Which of these demographics actually rejects that, and starts to feel "I'm a part of something that is going to change this country, and I'm proud to go vote," may be the key to victory for one of the Democratic candidates. Which group does stand up and get counted on primary day may provide the margin of victory, but it may also work the other way -- which group promises more than they can deliver on election day may provide the margin of defeat, as well.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com