08/20/2012 10:44 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

November Surprise: "Non-Voters" Will Vote

If the millions of Americans who could vote would actually register and vote, the Romney-Ryan campaign could fold up and go home today. Barack Obama would win in a landslide. According to a recent poll of unlikely voters, 43 percent favor Obama. Only 18 percent go for Romney.

That poll got lots of attention, and some laments that the Republican strategy of discouraging voter turnout is working.

But there is very good news for the Democrats if you read the poll's actual numbers. A lot of these so-called non-voters can be persuaded to vote, and there's still two-and-a-half months to go before Election Day.

Fully half admit it will bother them if they don't vote because they'll be letting others elect the president. More than half say that there is at least a 50/50 chance they will vote. Only 19 percent claim there is nothing that anyone could do to persuade them to vote.

Sixty-one percent are already registered to vote, and Obama leads Romney in this group by more than 2 to 1. (Less than a quarter of them are registered Republicans.) Among the unregistered, Obama leads by more than 3 to 1. Only 28 percent of the whole group identify as conservative, much lower than in polls of likely voters.

The common wisdom says these folks don't vote because they don't think the political process or their own vote can make a difference. Not so.

A whopping 77 percent say that the federal government plays an important role in their own lives. Two-thirds follow politics most or some of the time even when there is no election campaign going on. Fifty-eight percent say politics make a difference in their own life; only 37 percent say politics doesn't matter to them. More than half see a significant difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.

When the unregistered were asked why they haven't registered, only about a quarter gave answers suggesting that they don't think their vote would matter. When the registered were asked why they don't plan to vote, only 12 percent suggested that their vote wouldn't matter.

Bureaucratic hassle isn't a big problem for these non-voters. Only 16 pe rcent think registering to vote is too complicated or time-consuming. More than two-thirds say the process is quick and easy.

Now here are the biggest numbers of all: When USA Today released the poll, it cited a prediction by a prominent expert on voting, Curtis Gans, that nearly 90 million Americans will not vote this year. If this poll got it right, that includes 38 million potential Obama voters. At least 19 million of them say there's a 50-50 chance they will vote.

And when all who favor Obama were asked, "Would you register and vote if you knew that your vote could help swing a close national election to Obama?", an amazing 85 percent said they would. That's 32 million votes, folks!

No matter how much voter suppression and chicanery the GOP pulls off, they can't come close to denying the Democrats 19 million votes. And certainly not 32 million.

So the "non-voters" are not Obama's big problem. They are ripe for the picking, as the Obama campaign strategists know very well. That's why they are mounting the most sophisticated and expensive ground game ever.

The Obama campaign does have a problem finding enough volunteer troops to run the ground game. Obama has turned off some of the passionate activists who worked hard for him four years ago. Yet there are still plenty who support him and will vote for him. Many won't try to motivate non-voters, though, because they believe in the myth of voter apathy -- the idea that there are all these uneducated, unthinking Americans who will never be moved to vote because they just don't care about exercising their democratic rights.

Like most myths, this one has some truth in it. The likely non-voters in the USA Today poll are a bit less educated than the population as a whole (though 38 percent have higher-ed degrees). But most of them follow politics, have thought about the election, lean more to the left than the likely voters, and are open to the possibility that they'll vote. Many can be persuaded to register and vote -- especially those who live in swing states, where the race is likely to remain tight. Remember those 85 percent of Obama supporters who say they'll vote when they realize how much their vote really matters.

These so-called "non-voters" are the Obama campaign's secret weapon, if it can mobilize them. The organized ground game is an important way to wield that weapon. More important, though, is just getting people to talk to their friends, neighbors, relatives, and co-workers about the importance of registering, making sure you're registered (since many who think they are actually aren't), and then actually voting -- especially in the swing states.

If that message gets through to even a fraction of the people who now say they won't vote, there is no way Romney and Ryan stand a chance, no matter how many dirty tricks the Republicans play.

Ira Chernus blogs at