Nationwide there are 2.1 million American Indians of voting age. Native Americans make up only one percent of the total U.S. electorate.
Historically, American Indians have had very low rates of voter registration and turnout. On some American Indian reservations in the western United States as few as 10 percent of all eligible voters are registered.
But in several states the American Indian vote, if mobilized by the Obama campaign, could give a good boost to Obama's efforts to carry the state.
• The biggest target is New Mexico. There are 60,000 registered American Indian voters in the state of New Mexico, making up 9.5 percent of all voters. More than two thirds of those American Indians are registered as Democrats. Only 15 percent are registered Republicans.
There has been some progress in increasing American Indian voter participation. Between the 2000 and 2004 elections, voter turnout increased among 16 tribal groups in New Mexico. Overall about 66 percent of registered American Indians cast ballots in 2004.
Increased registration and turnout among American Indians in New Mexico could be important to Barack Obama. In 2004 there were 20,000 registered American Indians in New Mexico who did not vote. There were tens of thousands of other American Indians who were not registered to vote. In the 2004 election, George W. Bush carried the state of New Mexico by a mere 6,000 votes. In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore carried New Mexico by only 366 votes. Clearly, achieving even a small increase in American Indian voter participation will be important to Obama.
• In Colorado American Indians are only 1.1 percent of all voters. But polls in the state show a very tight race between Obama and McCain. If the election continues to be close, the 40,000 eligible American Indian voters in the state could prove decisive.
• Montana has been a reliable red state in recent presidential elections. But due to changing demographics, Obama has targeted Montana as a swing state. The latest statewide poll shows the race a dead heat in Montana.
There are 46,000 eligible American Indian voters in Montana. They make up more than 6 percent of the total electorate. Voter turnout by American Indians in Montana has been very low and thousands of Native Americans remain unregistered. Clearly, there is an opportunity here for Obama to mine a group of voters who should be sympathetic to his cause.
• The states of North Dakota and South Dakota must be considered long shots for the Obama campaign. But recent polls show McCain with only a small lead in both states. American Indians are 8 percent of the eligible voters in South Dakota and 5 percent of all voters in North Dakota.
If the election is close in these states, American Indian voters could hold the balance of power if they were to increase their participation in the electoral process. In many cases there is a lot of work to be done. For example, in 2004 in Todd County, South Dakota, there were 3,347 eligible American Indian voters. Only 1,293 turned out to vote in the presidential election.
John McCain has reached out to Native American voters in his home state of Arizona, where American Indians are 5 percent of the electorate. But McCain’s support of American Indians in his home state is unlikely to convince Native Americans in other states to support McCain. Obama has met with tribal leaders in several states and he has a special page on his Web site dedicated to "First Americans."
American Indians, like most Americans, are deeply affected by the nation’s declining economic prospects. More than one quarter of all American Indian families are poor. This is three times the rate for white families. The median income of American Indian families is about 60 percent of the median income of white families. American Indians are likely to rally around Obama’s economic program which includes tax cuts for lower- and middle-income families, healthcare coverage for all Americans, expanding unemployment insurance coverage, and raising the minimum wage.
Obama might consider supplying volunteers, money, and organization resources to the Native Vote Project of the National Congress of American Indians. This group has become extremely active in voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote campaigns among American Indians. Given the huge edge for Democrats in voter registration among American Indians, any nonpartisan effort to boost the overall vote of this minority group will disproportionately benefit Obama and other Democrats.
For more political strategies on the 2008 presidential election, go to ObamaElectionWatch.com.