President Obama’s reelection campaign is making a determined and carefully calibrated effort to boost enthusiasm among black voters, a group that could swing the election in key battleground states.
Polls have Obama winning more than 90 percent of the black vote against Mitt Romney, but there are signs that the high African-American turnout that fueled his 2008 victories in North Carolina and Virginia could dissipate after the hard realities of the president’s first term.
The chances for depressed turnout are increased by the bad economy, which at its worst drove the unemployment rate for blacks above 16 percent and led to some disillusionment with the candidate of “hope and change.”
African Americans “don’t have to vote for [Romney]” to help his campaign, said broadcaster and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
“An abstention from the polls is effectively a vote for Romney,” he said. “If there is only a minuscule drop-off [in turnout], it will spell trouble.”
The exit polls from the 2008 election show the high stakes for both campaigns. In Virginia — where Obama spoke on Friday to a predominantly African-American audience — one in five voters was black four years ago. Ninety-two percent of them pulled the lever to elect the nation’s first black president, and Obama won the state by a six-point margin.
In North Carolina, the final margin was even tighter — just one percentage point. Twenty-three percent of the voters in the Tar Heel State were African American, with 95 percent going for Obama.
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The Obama campaign is moving aggressively to motivate black voters in the remaining months before the election. A tailored arm of the campaign, Operation Vote, is intended to bolster the president’s support among specific demographics, including women, Hispanics and the gay community. Stephanie Brown, the campaign’s African American vote director, is a key player in the effort.
And while Obama sent Vice President Biden to this week’s NAACP convention, he continues to pop up in media outlets geared toward a black audience. He gave an exclusive interview to Essence this summer, while first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaJill Biden adds to communications team in lead-up to midterm elections Michelle Obama: 'Treat fear as a challenge' Barack Obama wishes a happy 58th birthday to 'best friend' Michelle MORE took time for a chat with Ebony magazine.
In the past, the president has also given interviews to BET and made call-ins to black radio programs such as The Tom Joyner Morning Show, which in recent months has featured paid campaign ads urging Obama’s reelection.
Another Obama push, Gotta Vote, is aimed at voter registration and safeguarding voting rights. While the effort is not explicitly geared toward African Americans, it is aimed in part at neutralizing voter ID measures that Democrats claim make it harder for minorities to vote.
The Romney campaign is making its own play for the black vote, as evident from the candidate’s address at the NAACP, where he made the case that Obama’s policies have made things worse for African Americans “in almost every way.”
"If I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color — and families of any color — more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president," Romney said.
Tara Wall, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, said Obama takes African American support “for granted” and vowed that Team Romney’s outreach efforts would continue.
“Anything we can do to chip away at his base is what we’re going to do,” Wall said. “The president can’t afford to lose any support among his base.”
Clo Ewing, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, pushed back against the charge that the president feels automatically entitled to African American support.
“[The president] does not take a single vote, or support from any community, for granted,” Ewing said.
Referring to Romney, she added: “He is going to have a hard time attracting support when his agenda is in direct opposition to what the African American community is looking for."
But the president might find it difficult to replicate the enthusiasm of 2008 because that campaign was seen, in Hutchinson’s words, “not as an election but as a holy crusade” for black Americans eager to see the color line broken in the White House.
There are “lots of reasons for some people not to be enthusiastic” this year, said Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and a former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “If you visit black churches or walk around barber shops or beauty salons, you hear a lot of grumbling.”
Many complaints center on the jobs crisis that has been devastating for African Americans. The most recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the black unemployment rate in June to be almost double that among whites: 14.4 percent to 7.4 percent.
But Berry also noted the strength of the imperative felt among a broad swath of the African American community to deliver a second term for Obama. People might believe him to have been an imperfect president, she suggested, but are still emotionally invested in his fortunes.
Many black voters believe “that it is really important to reelect him because of the symbolism,” Berry said. “People are saying, ‘Think about how awful it would be if we didn’t elect him.’ ”
Fredrick Harris, a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, acknowledged the possible decline in voter enthusiasm this year. But he said black voters could be energized if they feel Obama is attacked on racial grounds during the campaign.
The president’s team, however, has tread carefully around the issue of race for fears of him appearing “too black” to white voters.
The peril was most pronounced in the Jeremiah Wright controversy that erupted in 2008, but reemerged the following year after Obama criticized police who arrested Henry Louis Gates, a prominent black intellectual, as he tried to enter his home.
Even as Obama seeks to energize his black supporters, Hutchinson said, “he has also got to look at [white] centrist independents whose antenna is already up for anything that might seem racially tinted."