There has been a ripple of optimism moving through the ranks of election-dreading Democrats in recent days.
Polls show some key races tightening. In some places, there are signs that Democrats have been turning out in higher numbers than Republicans to vote early. And the campaigner-in-chief has hit the trail hard to woo the party's "late engagers" — largely women, minorities and young voters the party desperately needs to avoid an Election Day bloodbath.
A headline bannered at the liberal Huffington Post website this past week posed the question: "DEMS WAKING UP?"
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A union- and Democratic-sponsored Vote Early Today rally in Miami earlier this month.
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The answer is, yes — a little, experts say.
But the phenomenon is not unique to this year. Nor does it suggest that Democrats will match the high level of enthusiasm among Republican voters this year, which is pointing to strong turnout among GOP voters and a switch in Control of the House — and perhaps the Senate — from Democratic to Republican hands.
"This late action among Democrats is not unprecedented," says Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, which in a recent survey found that significantly more Republicans than Democrats continue to say that they are likely to vote next week.
Pew researchers did detect what they characterized as a "stirring" among Democrats late in this election season. The story of this campaign, however, says Doherty, remains the historically high Republican engagement.
Says Scott Keeter, Pew's director of survey research: "The things that Democrats could do to help themselves — their get-out-the-vote efforts, their comparative advantages in some fundraising — are probably not sufficient to overcome the Republican advantage, as well as a 10 percent unemployment rate."
Stem The Losses?
But can the Democrats' and President Obama's late hustle to get out the party base mitigate expected midterm losses that could cost them control of Congress?
Heck, yes, say glass-half-full Democrats like Dean Debnam, head of Public Policy Polling. (GOP pollster Bill McInturff has said, however, that based on a recent ABC News/Wall Street Journal survey he conducted with Democratic pollster Peter Hart, Democrats face daunting "arithmetic" in the waning days of the campaign to stave off a Capitol Hill power shift.)
Democrat Debnam says he is "relatively hopeful."
"The Democrats are going to be hurt," he says, "but I'm not of the opinion now that it's going to be apocalyptic."
What is Debnam's definition of apocalyptic in this case? Something along the lines of Texas GOP Rep. Pete Sessions' prediction that there are up to 100 current Democratic House seats in play — and that his party is confident it has already locked up a gain of more than 40 on its way to a much larger haul. Republicans need to win 39 House seats currently held by Democrats and 10 seats held by Democrats in the Senate to take over control of both chambers. Republicans are expected to gain at least a half-dozen governorships now held by Democrats.
Debnam is pinning his optimism on his belief that "Republicans peaked too early." He sees opportunity in close contests where Democratic candidates are running behind by a handful of percentage points. "Ninety to 95 percent of Republican voters have already locked in, but you still have between 15 and 20 percent of 'typical' Democratic voters — African-American, Latinos and women — who haven't made up their minds," he says.
"I'd rather be 2 points down with 15 to 20 percent of likely party voters not having made up their minds," he says, "than up 2 points with 95 percent locked in."
Making The Case, But Perhaps Too Late
Obama has put in time on MTV to reach young voters. His campaign swings have targeted female voters. And the party focused on African-American voters and Latinos in states, including Nevada and California, where they could make a difference in dead-heat races.
But Democrats face enthusiasm issues with every one of those voting blocs, all hard hit by the bad economy. And all — except the overall "women" category — are historically unreliable voters in nonpresidential election years.
Here's what Democrats face among those groups:
Young voters: A recent survey of 18- to 29-year-olds by Harvard's Institute of Politics found an eye-popping decline in the percentage of those polled who said they were enthusiastic about participating in this year's election.
Nearly a year ago, 36 percent of those polled said they would be voting this November. That dropped to 27 percent this month. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said they would prefer a Congress controlled by Democrats in the coming session. However, the survey found that young independent voters, by a 48-43 percent margin, would prefer a Republican over Democratic Congress after the election.
But surveys show that Obama still holds sway with the young-voter demographic, and his party has launched a social media get-out-the-vote effort targeting them.
Latinos: Latino Decisions, a political research organization, has been analyzing the Latino vote in key states. It has found that though 64.4 percent of Latino registered voters "report Democratic partisanship," current polls show that Latinos only prefer Democratic candidates over Republican ones 59 percent to 22.3 percent, with 18.7 percent undecided.
Gary Segura of Latino Decisions reported this month that the "undecided pool and the lag between partisan sentiment and current vote intentions should remain a source of concern for Democrats, and be seen as an opportunity for Republicans."
A recent Pew Hispanic Center survey also detected a troubling sign for Democrats: They found that half of registered Latino voters told pollsters that they were unlikely to vote in November.
Segura, however, has reported that enthusiasm is growing: His group recently found that 75.1 percent of registered Latino voters say they were "almost certain" to vote, an increase of almost 10 percentage points over what Latino Decisions surveys were showing a month ago.
The Republican brand has continued to erode among Latinos, the group's research has found, particularly in the wake of the acrimonious debate over illegal immigration. A recent GOP-sponsored ad in Nevada, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Harry Reid is locked in a battle with Tea Party-backed Republican Sharron Angle, urged Latinos not to vote.
The ad advised Hispanic voters to stay home on Election Day to signal their dissatisfaction with Democrats for failing to usher through immigration reform in Washington. The Spanish-language network Univision pulled the ad, and Angle denounced it.
Democratic strategists characterize the ad campaign as a misstep that has helped their effort to persuade Latinos to vote. Obama in 2008 spent $20 million to get out the Latino vote, an investment that was a key to his wins in states including Nevada, where he got 76 percent of the Latino vote.
African-Americans: The Democratic Party, organized labor and civil rights groups are investing more money and resources than in the 2006 midterm cycle in an effort to break through widespread voter apathy and turn out blacks to the polls. Unlike in previous years, several of the tightest congressional and gubernatorial races are in states with significant black populations, giving blacks an uncommon chance to deliver winning margins.
To rouse them, some organizers are applying aggressive tactics, including unusually open racial invective in messaging that attacks the Tea Party and conservatives.
Women: Women in recent decades have typically cast more votes for Democrats than Republicans. Pew's Doherty says the center's survey shows that Democratic women are "on track with historic norms" in terms of percentages, but Republican women "are just much more likely to say they're definitely going to vote."
Obama held an event focused on women last week in Seattle with incumbent Sen. Patty Murray, who is facing a stiff challenge from Republican Dino Rossi, and women in his administration have been talking issues ranging from wage gaps and health care to small-business loans.
"There are lots and lots of people who aren't planning to vote who would be helpful to Democrats if they vote," Keeter says. "But history is not encouraging."
In 1994, for example, there was a late-campaign surge among Democratic voters who said they were giving a lot of thought to participating in the election, and the rise in interest "cut the gap a good bit," says Keeter's colleague, Doherty.
"But on Election Day, the GOP still had a large advantage in turnout," he says. And that turnout, coming in the middle of Democratic President Bill Clinton's first term, helped Republicans win 54 seats that had been held by Democrats, and capture control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Debnam, however, is keeping the faith as he watches Democrats pull closer in crucial Senate races in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Kentucky, and the party pins its hopes on early voting and motivating the unmotivated.
"An unenthusiastic vote," he says, "is just as good as an enthusiastic vote."
NPR's Corey Dade contributed to this report