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The Party of Non-Voters -- Why Our Election Day Volunteering Matters More Than Ever

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The Pew Research Center just released an immensely valuable poll, contrasting those who intend to vote this round with those who will likely stay home. Among all adults, the Democrats or those who leaned Democrat had a 50 to 39 margin, and Obama had a three-point plus in job approval. But among those likely to head to the polls, Republicans were up four points. The difference was among non-voters, where the Democrats led by a staggering 24 points, except that these people were likely to stay home. They were overwhelmingly younger and poorer, less white, the core of the base that carried Obama and the Democrats to victory just two years ago. They approved of the job Obama was doing by 16 points, so this wasn't a progressive backlash. They just didn't feel the urgency of turning out, or they hadn't been asked enough to do so. Another Pew survey documented what was actually a one point Democratic preference among voters overall. But this was dwarfed by exceptionally high rates of Republican participation and Democrats who were far more disengaged.

That's the picture. It's bad news for the Democrats and bad news for the country, given the degree of the current Republican detachment from reality. But it doesn't have to be the final verdict, precisely because these are people who would vote Democrat if they only got to the polls, which means it's up to the rest of us to convince them. We don't have to change their minds. We just have to get them to participate. 30 percent of voters who lean Democratic have received live phone calls, which means 70 percent have not. The Democratic campaigns have the coordinated voter files, so reaching most people is doable. The question is whether there will be enough volunteers to complete the task. That's where we come in, whether we can spend an hour or all day. You can call from anywhere, simply by registering and logging in. You don't need to even leave your home. Or if you do want to participate in the final door-to-door push, that can be even more helpful. But the challenge is do to something, knowing that it could tip the difference in race after vulnerable race.

Six years ago, as I've written, I spent election day knocking on doors in Washington State and turned out three additional voters. One had forgotten about the election. Another needed a ride. A third didn't know how to submit his absentee ballot. My candidate won the governor's race by 133 votes, over a right-wing Republican who's now running neck and neck with the once seemingly unbeatable Senator Patty Murray. I didn't get those votes by any particular eloquence or skill, just by showing up. Any other volunteer would have had the same results. But had I and 50 other volunteers stayed home that day, we'd have lost. The stakes are as high or higher today, and the outcome in race after close race could still depend on what we do. Whether we step up or not is up to us.

Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times (St Martin's Press, April 2010), and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, which the History Channel and the American Book Association named the #3 political book of 2004. See www.paulloeb.org.