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.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
President Obama gives a boy a high-five at a campaign event in Jacksonville, Fla., in July.

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.

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

The president’s supporters argue that Obama’s record makes it clear that he has worked for black advancement, as he promised.

His signature health-care law will boost the plight of poorer blacks, they say, and his support for public service jobs in the stimulus bill also benefits the community. (According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center, 21 percent of black workers are public employees.) Middle-class tax cuts, too, have helped black families as well as white.

And, says Professor Gillespie, likely black voters do not fault Obama for the poor economy, but but the blame instead on what they see as obstructionist Republicans trying to undermine the president at all costs.

“I’ve heard black people say the president would do more, but ‘they’ won’t let him,” says Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University professor who specializes in evangelical politics, and who is herself African-American. “They believe that if he’s reelected he’ll do more for them.”

Black support for Obama could be seen in a California snap poll taken by SurveyUSA shortly after Wednesday’s first presidential debate, in which everybody surveyed but African-Americans thought Mitt Romney won.

Moreover, in this election, voting for Obama is less about racial pride and more about policy – particularly that Republican policies hold fewer specific rewards or distinct promises for the black community, suggests David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, in an interview with the Tennesseean newspaper in Nashville.

“African-Americans are still facing a lot of hardships,” he told the paper. “But Republicans are offering nothing more than the same of what they had under George Bush, and what they had under George Bush was hard times – with no promise of things getting better.”

Grim numbers for black community

Yet the plight of the black community under Obama has by most measures worsened since he took office:

• The median annual income of black families fell by 11.1 percent over the past three years, about double the decline for white families, and the black poverty rate is now up to nearly 28 percent, up 2 percent from 2009. The black unemployment rate is at 14 percent nationally, but even higher in Southern states, where most blacks live.

• Urban inner cores in Chicago, Detroit, and other big cities have seen unusual mob lawlessness involving black youth – a sign of disaffection and decoupling of blacks from the national economy and the nation as a whole, suggests Ms. Swain at Vanderbilt.

• Foreclosure rates are higher among blacks than whites, and black homeownership – which has traditionally constituted 60 percent of African-American wealth – has fallen in percentage terms compared to whites, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Meanwhile, in May, the president’s decision to openly back same-sex marriage drew cries of protest from conservative black Baptist churches and pastors in the South. While Obama’s change-of-heart had the effect of boosting support for gay marriage among blacks for the first time to above 50 percent, a poll by an anti-gay marriage group called Coalition of African-American Pastors suggested that 12 percent of previous black Obama supporters would not vote for him again.

'The danger of over-confidence'

Conversely, in Virginia, black leaders fear that black voters won’t turn out because of over-confidence in Obama’s shot at winning the presidency again.

“The polls show that we’re ahead, but I’m worried about the apathy in the African-American community,” Va. State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III told the Howard University News Service last week. “A lot of people are not coming to the rallies. If we don’t turn out, we still could lose Virginia. They assume the election is over.”

The Richmond Free Press, the largest black weekly in Virginia, raised similar concerns last week in an editorial titled “The danger of overconfidence,” which questioned Obama’s ability to energize black voters.

To be sure, black political experts say likely African-American voters will pull the lever for Obama, not Mitt Romney, while others, including Gene Demby on the Root website, suggest that “this hypothetical voter sit-out is not a real thing.”

“The best Republicans can hope for is that those black people who have figured it out and realize they’ve been had over four years, that they choose to stay home, because I don’t see them voting for Mitt Romney,” says Swain.

Apathy has even spread to some black intellectuals. “I’m going to vote for the other offices that are on the ballot, but I’m just not going to cast a vote for the presidency,” William Darity, an African-American studies professor at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., told “PBS NewsHour” this week, to the disbelief of the reporter doing the story. Mr. Darity's concern? "We're approaching the kinds of unemployment rates that existed in the United States at the height of the Great Depression in the African-American community in North Carolina."

To add to the campaign's worries, studies of voter registration figures indicate that Democrats are struggling to sign up new Obama voters in states across the country, including Virginia and Florida.

In part, that’s why Democrats have seized on tough new voter ID laws and voter roll purges in states like Florida, Texas, and South Carolina, accusing Republicans of trying to discourage Democratic constituencies, including blacks, from registering. There may be truth to that, but experts say at least part of that voter registration drop is also evidence of an enthusiasm gap among some black voters, with economic travails, potential over-confidence, and concern about gay marriage all playing a role.

Such issues ultimately “may not dampen support for the president but … may lessen turnout,” political communications expert Brad Bannon told Politico.

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