Even as he fends off Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination contest, Senator Barack Obama is already turning his attention to the general election, and to an ambitious plan to reshape the American electorate in his favor.
Bringing new voters to the polls "is going to be a very big part of how we win," said Obama's deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, in an interview. "Barack's appeal to independent voters is also going to be key."
Hildebrand said the campaign is likely to turn its attention and the energy of its massive volunteer army this fall on registering African-American voters, and voters under 35 years old, in key states.
"Can it change the math in Ohio? Very much so," he said. "If you look at the vote spread between Bush and Kerry in 2004 - we could potentially erase that."
President George W. Bush carried Ohio by about 119,000 votes in 2004, winning the state despite a massive, expensive Democratic effort to mobilize voters there. And there's some reason for skepticism that Obama can do better than Senator John Kerry and his allies. Every four years, Democrats claim, and reporters write, that a massive voter registration and field operation will reshape the electorate in their favor. In recent years, they've been matched or bested by the Republican National Committee's targeted outreach to likely Republican voters.
"It's something that Democrats have tried," said Bill Steiner, the Republican National Committee's director of strategy. "The 2004 election kind of speaks for itself, particularly in Ohio, where that was a big fear."
But there are signs that this year could be different. In the Obama campaign, youth turnout and Internet-based organizing - so often promised, and rarely delivered in the past - have been made real. And the first black nominee could reach deep into the large non-voting tracts within the African-American community.
"There's the potential here to change American politics for a while. Under-35 voters are just so overwhelmingly Democrats. Getting them registered is a simple, important, not-easy part of that — and Obama can," said Jim Jordan, a consultant who ran the independent group that headed Democrats' national field operation in 2004, America Coming Together. "And the voters who do register will actually vote. African-American voters, under-30 voters will be hugely self-motivated. They'll get to the polls in numbers that aren't typical for new registrants, and they'll do it on their own, on top of the strong turn out mechanics that the Obama guys will surely bring to bear."
Michael Slater, the deputy director of the non-partisan Project Vote, also said he found the Obama campaign's hopes of a dramatic increase in the participation "very plausible" for younger and black voters, groups, he said, which are under-represented in the electorate.
"There's a long history of a lot of hype not delivering on election day," he said. But in this case, "there certainly is a great potential for an African-American candidate to appeal to some voters who have been out of the electorate."
Obama's massive, smoothly integrated volunteer organization has been a mainstay of his campaign. It has been central to his success in caucus states such as Minnesota and Idaho, where a volunteer army - organized online - preceded and noticeably bolstered his staff's organizing efforts, helping to build the huge victory margins that have made him the frontrunner.
His voter registration efforts have drawn far less attention. But they were there from the start. When Obama toured Iowa last February in his first campaign swing, his campaign brought along voter registration cards. As the race there heated up, voter registration became a quiet focus, with registration drives in colleges and even high schools that helped drive Obama's victory.
South Carolina, Hildebrand said, was the site of another intensive effort. "A great case study for voter registration was the South Carolina primary, where we dramatically expanded the African-American vote and dramatically expanded the youth vote," he said. "It was such a big part of getting us to that 28-point margin of victory."
Another high-stakes voter registration drive just concluded in Pennsylvania, where the deadline to register as a Democrat and participate in the primary was March 24. The Pennsylvania Department of State reports that more than 234,000 voters have either newly registered as Democrats or switched from other parties, and the state hasn't finished counting the new registrations.
"We put together a massive effort," said Hildebrand, saying that the numbers include "over 200k Obama supporters" - an impressive number, and likely more than 10 percent of the total turnout in the primary.
Hildebrand declined to discuss in detail the campaign's preparations for this summer and fall, but he said planning has begun for a major voter registration push.
"We are pretty convinced that Barack is going to be the nominee, and so we're going to prepare for a general election no matter how long this two-person race goes," he said. "What we did with those two demographic groups [in South Carolina and elsewhere] is what we will have the capacity to do in the general election in every state where there's large pockets of under-35s and African-Americans" - states that include Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and other battlegrounds.
The recent Pennsylvania drive reveals elements of that effort. It includes a traditional ground operation, with staffers flooding the state from offices across Pennsylvania. Obama also ran radio ads aimed at young people and at African-Americans, encouraging them to register. His website, meanwhile, includes a section that facilitates registration in each of the primary states by filling out a completed registration form in each of the states, and offering details on where and how to submit it.
But Obama - whose campaign is entwined with his biography on many levels - has also made his own experience registering voters part of the story, something that's likely to gain a higher profile as national efforts step up. In 1992, he served as the director of Project Vote's Chicago successful Chicago effort to raise minority voter participation, a chapter that's the subject of a video Obama narrates on his website. The video suggests that the project helped turn Illinois to Bill Clinton that year.
Together with Obama's proven appeal to independent voters, his campaign's focus on increasing turnout of younger and black voters -- his base -- could counterbalance hints of weakness among more traditional swing voters like the working-class whites known as Reagan Democrats.
Senator John McCain is running strong in many polls in key states, and is expected to challenge Obama for many of those voters. But McCain lacks a motivated new cadre of supporters, and even the traditional Republican volunteer base - evangelical Christians - views him with skepticism.
"Where Obama really has the comparative advantage is his volunteers," said Michael McDonald, an expert on voter turnout at George Mason University. "When you look at McCain, one of his weaknesses is that he's not a candidate who is going to excite the Evangelical hard conservative base. He's not going to have the volunteers in place to do the same sort of mobilization efforts that an Obama would do."
The record turnout in many Democratic primaries suggests the same. Obama, for instance, received more votes in Virginia than the leading Republicans combined.
"There's a big difference in what's happening in the two parties," said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist, who cited the Democratic candidates' superior online organizing.
"The possibility of running a very large, very powerful, and very effective campaign to register voters is something the Obama campaign could pull off this summer."