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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

How to tell if Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter have a chance

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A steady stream of early voters is seen at the Dekalb Voter Registrations and Elections offices on Memorial Drive in Decatur shortly before Election Day in 2012. For Democrats, replicating the enthusiasm in 2014 is a challenge. Kent Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

A steady stream of early voters is seen at the Dekalb Voter Registrations and Elections offices on Memorial Drive in Decatur shortly before Election Day in 2012. For Democrats, replicating the enthusiasm in 2014 is a challenge. Kent Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

In Georgia politics, the only real question hanging between now and November, like an excruciatingly slow curveball, is this: Do Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter have a chance of leading Democrats out of their 12-year drought?

A numerical answer to this question exists. Or at least, it will. But you won’t find it in any poll. We will let the new Dad explain himself further below, but Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed would simply point you to this figure: 5,048,825.

There were that many registered voters eligible to vote in last month’s primary. The extent to which that number grows between now and the first week of October will largely tell us whether a Democratic revival is real – or if Nunn and Carter are just making down-payments on the future.

“At the end of the day, no matter what the polls say, the election is going to be determined by the registration effort in the state of Georgia,” Reed said Thursday.

The mayor wasn’t speaking out of school. Last weekend, Carter took his campaign for governor to Savannah to meet with local Democrats. The gathering took a strategic turn. Carter and his staff were apparently unaware that Marcus Howard, a reporter for the Savannah Morning News, didn’t mind working Saturdays.

“Barack Obama got 1.7 million votes in Georgia (in 2010). I need 1.3 [million], probably, in order to win,” said Carter, explaining that the votes will have to come not just from Democrats, but independents and disillusioned Republicans.

“It’s going to be a big-tent vision, and so we’re going to be speaking a lot of persuasion language,” he said.

But to boost the Democratic base, Carter said he – and his Senate counterpart, Michelle Nunn – would be employing high-tech voter registration and turnout methods developed during the two Obama campaigns for the White House.

Karl Douglass, political director for the Carter campaign, spoke of a ”super data-base manager” hired by the gubernatorial campaign, and of fieldwork that could begin late this month.

The 2010 race for governor was a low-point for Democrats in Georgia. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, seeking a comeback, finished with 1.1 million votes – more than 250,000 behind the victor, Republican Nathan Deal.

”We’ve got to get voter turnout higher than it was last mid-term, but we think we can get it higher, naturally,” Douglas said. “The question is whether we can get it high enough. We’re going to engineer that in a lot of ways.”

“We believe there are upwards of 600,000 unregistered Democratic voters available in this state. We only need 200,000 of them to win,” the Carter political director said.

But to bring 200,000 new voters to the polls, you might have to register as many as 500,000. A very high bar, in a contest that won’t feature Obama or any other African-American at the top of the ticket.

The largest voter registration effort, headquartered on the first floor of the midtown Atlanta building that also houses Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign, will be jointly bankrolled by the two statewide campaigns and national Democratic sources.

But there are others, including one sponsored by state House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, through a non-profit corporation that has registered 20,000 new voters since March.

“We have a demographic shift that Democrats, Republicans and independents acknowledge,” Abrams said. “In the last decade, Georgia has had an in-migration of 1.1 million, and about 81 percent of those are people of color.” Those people are her focus – a demographic that speaks for itself.

Abrams noted that last year, Governor Deal warned members of his party that the GOP had no choice but to expand its base, pointing out that 56 percent of current public school students are nonwhite.

Because her effort is non-partisan, Abrams is only involved in voter registration, not turnout. Which brings us back to Mayor Reed of Atlanta.

The registration and turnout tactic developed by Obama, which Nunn and Carter now intend to duplicate, the mayor said, amounts to a major cultural shift for Democrats in Georgia.

Past statewide Democratic campaigns have followed a familiar pattern – outreaches to conservative and rural Georgia, followed by later, even last-minute appeals to a black Democratic base.

“Many of our Democratic friends confuse voter registration and turnout with ‘walking around’ money – which is an outmoded practice,” Reed said.

The Obama model might be called “constant contact.” After they’re registered, voters are tethered to the campaign via constant messaging, usually through social media, until they’ve cast a ballot.

It requires a candidate to speak to all of his or her supporters at once, rather than in phases. Which can be expensive.

It also means the competitiveness of the Nunn and Carter campaigns will also depend on how much money they devote to the effort, the mayor said — $3 million would equate to a “serious” effort.

“You have to fund it like it’s as important as the television campaign,” he said.

If it works, the tactic is likely to wreak havoc on polling through November – given that the object is to change assumptions about who turns out in Georgia elections. It happened in 2012, in states like Ohio and Virginia.

“That’s why Karl Rove was stuttering on election night,” Reed said.

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