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Will black voters give Obama what he needs in Southern swing states?

Black voters who do go to the polls are near-certain to vote for Obama. But in Virginia and North Carolina, concern is rising that the black voters who sealed the deal for Obama in 2008 will stay home.

By Staff Writer / October 5, 2012

President Obama gives a boy a high-five at a campaign event in Jacksonville, Fla., in July.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File



When then-candidate Barack Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008, a lot of the credit went to the eye-popping 76 percent turnout rate among African-American voters.

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Virginia, too, saw its large share of black voters help put Mr. Obama over the top in a state that hadn’t supported a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson. The results revived Democrats’ hopes for a new Southern strategy and for a new coalition between traditional black voters and progressive newcomers to the growing knowledge economies of northern Virginia and the Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte triangle.

But in these two Southern swing states, some polling and anecdotal evidence is giving rise to Democratic concerns that African-American enthusiasm for President Obama has slipped as a result of stubborn economic despair, deteriorating inner city conditions, a sense among voters that Obama no longer needs the black vote to win, and disagreements over social issues, including the president’s embrace of same-sex marriage. Heightening those concerns is the recognition by campaign strategists and analysts that, to win reelection, Obama likely needs to get close to the 65 percent of black voters who turned out in 2008 to vote in 2012.

The campaign’s decision to send First Lady Michelle Obama, Obama’s most popular proxy, to several historically black colleges in North Carolina over the last few months suggests in part that a campaign that had grown "a little complacent" about base turnout in some states is now focusing hard on the grassroots, recognizing that "African-Americans represent a very important bloc of the base," says Jason Roth, a Jacksonville, Fla., political consultant who served as the Obama campaign's north Florida field director in 2008.

“I think the Obama campaign is sophisticated enough to understand the key to winning North Carolina is the African-American vote,” says Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. “I think they’re really concerned about the fact that there isn’t the kind of energy there was in 2008 … and in a very, very close election that could be critical.”

“We do have to pay attention to the enthusiasm factor,” says Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist and author of “The New Black Politician.” “Turnout is not going to be as robust as 2008, this is no longer about electing the first black president, but it’s also very difficult to tease out where black support is right now and whether or not black turnout is going to be depressed.”

“The question is what’s the dropoff across the board?” she adds. “Will Republican turnout be less anemic than Democratic turnout? If everybody is upset in equal proportions, it’s a wash, but there’s a chance that might not happen, meaning one group is more enthused and, thus, more effective. That’s the difference between winning and losing elections.”

What Obama has done for blacks


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