Turnout will be key

With so many new registrations this year, the prospects for Kerry look good, despite intense efforts to suppress African-American, Hispanic and Democratic voters.

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published October 20, 2004 4:44PM (EDT)

Passing almost without notice earlier this month, the public release of the official staff report prepared by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on "The Civil Rights Record of the George W. Bush Administration," whose submission is required by federal law, was blocked by the Republican commissioners. Nonetheless, it was posted on the commission's Web site. "This report," the site states, "finds that President Bush has neither exhibited leadership on pressing civil rights issues, nor taken actions that matched his words."

Indeed, Bush cut funding to the six major programs devoted to ensuring civil rights. The initiative he presents as the heart of his "compassionate conservatism," his "faith-based" program, actually opens the door to new forms of discrimination. "Ironically," notes the report, "the initiative permits employment discrimination by allowing religious organizations to deny equal employment opportunity while accepting public funding."

Bush has held the Civil Rights Commission in contempt since its June 2001 report on "Election Practices in Florida During the 2000 Campaign." Then, it concluded: "The Commission's findings make one thing clear: widespread voter disenfranchisement -- not the dead-heat contest -- was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election ... The disenfranchisement of Florida's voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of black voters."

This year, vast efforts to mobilize or suppress African-American, Hispanic and Democratic voters have already reached a greater level of intensity than in any modern campaign. In Ohio, for example, Republicans attempted to toss out new Democratic registrations, claiming they were written on the wrong weight of paper, a gambit overruled by a federal court.

From Pennsylvania to Arizona to Nevada, a Republican consulting firm is being paid to discourage new Democratic voters from getting on the rolls. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has more than 10,000 lawyers deployed to defend against voter suppression, 2,000 stationed like the Union Army in Florida; and civil rights groups are sending out more than 6,000 lawyers. It is not just that Bush vs. Gore remains an open wound and that Bush's legitimacy has never been settled; it is that the battle over voting rights and participation, democracy itself, is being fought again. It is of more than cursory interest to those now in the field that the line from Bush vs. Gore runs to the early political career of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, who began building his Republican credentials in the 1950s by physically intimidating Hispanic voters at polling places in Arizona.

Since 2002, when Republicans exploited terrorism to besmirch the patriotism of Democrats in the midterm elections, what can only be called a new Democratic Party alongside traditional constituencies has been summoned into existence by extra-party groups. More than 100,000 activists are tramping through the precincts. In Ohio alone, more than 300,000 new Democratic voters have been added, more than a 3-to-1 increase over Republican registrants, Cecile Richards, director of America Votes, told me. These registrations of literally millions of new voters did not just happen, they were organized -- and that same organization is aiming at Election Day.

The polls, nearly all showing a dead-even race, are fundamentally flawed in that they mostly fail to account for all these new voters, who have no past records. Also, they do not measure those for whom a cellphone is their principal phone -- 6 percent of the population now, concentrated among younger people, who appear to show an unusual interest in voting and will vote Democratic by a margin of 2.5-to-1.

The Democracy Corps poll, however, accounts for newly registered voters. Stanley Greenberg, Bill Clinton's pollster in his 1992 campaign and Tony Blair's, conducts the poll's research. Four months ago, Greenberg told me, the newly registered made up only 1 percent of the sample. One month ago, they comprised 4 percent. Now, in the poll completed on Oct. 18, they are at 7 percent and rising. And they will vote for Kerry over Bush by 61 to 37 percent.

Moreover, Bush's job approval has now fallen to 47 in this poll (others have it at 44); presidents below 50 lose without exception. Bush has not campaigned in Ohio for an extraordinary stretch of three weeks, though he plans to stop there once this week. Unemployment continues to rise in the state. "There is no other explanation for his absence," says Greenberg, "other than his numbers go down when he's there. His position on jobs is implausible."

Democracy Corps' research shows that best-case arguments for either candidate shift no voters, not even 1 percent. They are locked in. (Democracy Corps has the contest at 50 to 47 percent for Kerry.) The deciding factor therefore will be turnout -- the higher the turnout, the larger the vote for Democrats.

Since Sept. 11 infused Bush with a mission, he has evoked hovering angels, crusades, duels, mushroom clouds, evildoers, shades of a universe of death. Bush's imagery induces a dynamic of paralysis before the threat and fervor in embrace of his absolute reassurance and power. Dread without end requires faith without limit.

Yet suddenly Bush found himself on the defensive when the New York Times reported on the closed gathering of his campaign contributors in which he revealed his radical program for his second term -- complete right-wing capture of the Supreme Court, privatizing Social Security, turning over national land to the oil companies, more tax cuts. Of course, Kerry was prompted to raise these issues. And Bush whined that Kerry was practicing "the politics of fear," relying on "old-time scare tactics." The next day, Dick Cheney, vicar of doom, projected terrorists exploding nuclear weapons within the United States, events darker than Sept. 11 -- "not just 3,000" dead, but hundreds of thousands -- and offered Bush as our savior from looming apocalypse.

"No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as terror," wrote Edmund Burke. But not even the eve of destruction will stifle turnout.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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