African-Americans made up 12.1 percent of the 131 million people who voted in the 2008 presidential election. The turnout rate for black eligible voters increased 4.9 percentage points from 2004, with a total of two million first-time black voters. In ‘08, 98 percent of black voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama.
Undoubtedly, the chance to make history was a big part of black Americans’ unprecedented rush to the polls in 2008, and it proved critical to Obama’s election. For example, in North Carolina, a state rich in electoral votes that Obama was not expected to win, his campaign produced 300,000 new black voters. He won the state by fewer than 14,000 votes. With the 2012 campaign already under way, Obama’s campaign team, Obama for America, is looking to match or exceed 2008’s black voter turnout. They plan to do it with a simple message and novel outreach.
The Obama campaign’s message to black voters is rooted in his administration’s accomplishments. “The African-American community recognizes that from day one, President Obama has been fighting for policies that give everyone in this country a fair shot and the opportunity to succeed,” said one campaign aide. “That’s why he passed a payroll tax, which put more money back into the pocket of 18.5 million African-American workers and why he pushed for job training, education and health care reform.” His 2010 executive order for $850 million in additional HBCU funding and expanded health care coverage of black Americans through the Affordable Care Act are other accomplishments of which Obama For America plans to remind black voters.
The challenge certainly won’t be a problem of popularity. A recent Pew Research Center poll reported that black respondents preferred the president over Mitt Romney 95 percent to 3 percent, numbers that closely resemble how black voters preferred Obama to McCain at the polls in 2008.
In an interview with the New York Times, Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said, “The challenge is going to be for the people who were completely inspired by him in 2008 who were atypical voters — to get those people to come back out and vote for him in 2012.”
Newark Mayor Cory Booker didn’t have a positive outlook. He told Politico, “I don’t know if you’re going to get the heightened turnout… In 2008, we had tens of thousands of new voters. Only a percentage of them have kept voting in [off-year elections]. I don’t know if that percentage will bump back up.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the black population eligible to vote numbers nearly 27,000,000. In 2008, 30.3 percent reported not being registered to vote. That decreased to 16.7 percent in 2010, presumably as a result of intense voter registration efforts by the Obama campaign. Although 64.7 percent reported voting in 2008, the year of Obama’s historic election, that number fell to 43.5 percent in 2010.
Of blacks who reported not voting on the 2010 Census, 27.7 percent explained that they were out of town, forgot, had transportation or registration problems or found their polling location to be inconvenient. Ensuring voter turnout at the rates they were in 2008 would mean solving at least those problems.
The James Irvine Foundation conducted research in communities throughout Central and Southern California around the 2008 presidential election. They studied methods to increase voter participation among low-income and ethnic communities and found “quality personal contact” was critical in mobilization of the groups. They reported that electoral participation among “low-propensity ethnic voters” increased by as much as 5.7 percentage points as a result of the approach, detailing the most important elements of the personal contact as; a live phone call, proper timing, a personal visit from a member of their own community and thorough training of those conducting outreach.
“Every vote counts,” said Obama For America’s African-American Vote Director Stefanie Brown. “We’ll need every vote on November sixth to get the president reelected.” She said that the campaign’s goal is to match 2008’s turnout or possibly exceed it. In the vein of grassroots efforts like those prescribed by the James Irvine Foundation, the campaign’s African Americans for Obama website offers opportunities to volunteer as a “Black Business Captain,” “Congregation Captain,” “Barber Shop & Beauty Shop Captain” or “HBCU Organizer.”
College students, including those at historically black colleges and universities, were particularly active in 2008, canvassing and phone banking for Obama. On Tuesday, Obama For America hit the campus of North Carolina Central University for a rally featuring campaign manager Jim Messina, adviser Valerie Jarrett and actress Gabrielle Union appealed to students to get active. Another event was held simultaneously at Clark Atlanta University with professor Michael Eric Dyson, singer Janelle Monáe and Cosby Show actress Keisha Night Pulliam.
Brown said in a phone interview that she sees Obama’s outreach on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities as critical to the mission. The campaign has already coordinated stops at 28 HBCU campuses. Brown said, “We’re encouraging students to be foot soldiers on the ground and also to get their peers engaged in relaying the administration’s successes to the community.”
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey on Twitter at @idxr