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In Georgia, Small Improvements in Black Voter Participation May Make Big Difference

Perhaps the only happy consequence of the segregation era is that a number of Southern states like Georgia are required by the Voting Rights Act to keep statistics on registration and turnout by the race of the voter. Those statistics suggest that black voter registration is up materially from 2004.

Here are the numbers. In November 2004, black voters represented 27.4 percent of Georgia’s active registered voter pool. As of October 1st, that figure has increased to 29.0 percent.

Now, that might not seem like all that big a difference. But suppose that the black vote is split 95/5 between Obama and McCain, and the nonblack vote is split 30/70. (Obama probably will not win 30 percent of the white vote. But since Georgia also contains material numbers of Hispanic and Asian voters, winning 30 percent of the nonblack vote is probably reasonable).

In 2004, also according to statistics from the Georgia Secretary of State, black voters made up 25.4 percent of election day turnout (this means that they participated at slightly lower rates than white voters). Applying those 95/5 and 30/70 voter splits to the 25.4 percent figure would work out to a 7.0-point win for John McCain, about where polls seem to have Georgia now.

Now suppose that black and nonblack voters each turn out at the same rates as they did in 2004, but that we account for the increase in black registration. According to our math, John McCain’s 7.0-point lead is now cut to 4.9 points.

But that is probably too conservative an assumption. Newly-registered voters — and nearly half of Georgia’s newly-registered voters are black — turn out at higher rates than previously registered voters. In addition, one would assume that the opportunity to vote for the first African-American nominee might be just a little bit of a motivating factor for black voters. Suppose that African-Americans represent 29.0 percent of Georgia’s turnout, matching their share of active registrations. Using the splits we described above, McCain’s lead is now cut to 2.3 points.

Even this, however, may be too conservative. For one thing, the registration window in Georgia is not yet over … it concludes today. The statistics I cited above only reflected registrations through September 30. There is typically a surge of registrations in the final few days before the deadline. In 2004, Georgia’s active voter rolls increased by about 150,000 persons in the first four days of October, before the registration deadline closed. That was more than they’d increased in the entire month of September.

So suppose that by tonight, black voters have increased to 30 percent of Georgia’s registered voter pool. Plugging that 30 percent number in, McCain’s advantage is a mere 1 point.

Think these numbers sound unreasonable? Early voting is underway in Georgia, and according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, black voters do not represent 30 percent of Georgia’s early voter turnout. Instead, they represent almost 40 percent. Although early voting figures can be idiosyncratic , Barack Obama certainly seems to be having little trouble getting his vote out. Indeed, Barack Obama is winning Georgia right now.

A related question is whether the pollsters are underrepresenting the black vote in their turnout estimates in states like Georgia. I think they might be. In their past two surveys of Georgia, SurveyUSA pegged black voter turnout at 25-26 percent. This is a pretty safe assumption, since it exactly matches the Secretary of State’s turnout estimate from 2004. But this isn’t 2004. I would be surprised if black turnout wasn’t at least 27-28 percent, and somewhere in the 29-31 percent range is entirely possible. If those numbers are achieved, Georgia is pretty close to being a toss-up. And if it is a toss-up for Barack Obama, it is probably also a toss-up for Jim Martin, who is attempting to unseat Saxby Chambliss from the Senate.

Georgia is not quite a tipping-point state. In order to win it, Barack Obama will have to have made at least some inroads with Southern whites, and if he’s done so, that will mean that he’s won states like Virginia and North Carolina and won’t need Georgia’s electoral votes. But I’d guess that it represents a more plausible pickup opportunity for Obama than states like West Virginia and Montana, which are nominally closer in the polling. And if these black voter registration numbers are replicated throughout the South, Elizabeth Dole, Saxby Chambliss and Roger Wicker could all face tough re-election battles, substantially increasing the Democrats’ chances of winning 60 Senate seats.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.