President Barack Obama shares a laugh with former White House aide Reggie Love as they watch the Olypmics-bound U.S. men’s national basketball team game against Brazil, at the Verizon Center on Monday, July 16, 2012, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Leslie E. Kossoff/Polaris Images)
When President Obama opted against speaking at the NAACP’s national convention last week, while Mitt Romney did, several news stories emerged asking if the president is in some ways taking the African-American vote for granted.
“People are seeing other constituencies getting their issues addressed and are wondering why is it that African-Americans haven’t been able to get their issues on the national agenda,” Fredrick Harris, the director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, told McClatchy.
The Rev. William Owens, president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, a group that opposes Obama’s support of gay marriage, said, “He has met with the Latinos; he meets with [everyone] except for the people who put him where he is.”
To be sure, few African-Americans in Houston at the NAACP convention echoed these sentiments, and the organization itself defended the president.
But a closer look at Obama’s campaign operation provides a clear answer to this question: the president is not taking African-American votes for granted, in part because he cannot afford to. As the Urban League detailed in an important report
it released this week, African-Americans are a crucial kind of “swing vote.”
They aren’t choosing between Obama and Romney, like most swing voters, but between Obama and staying home. Black turnout in the 2008 election, in which blacks voted at
almost the same rates as whites (65 percent of voting-age, eligible African-Americans cast ballots, compared to 66 percent of whites) was virtually unprecedented.
In contrast, black turnout was only 60 percent in 2004. A drop-off also occurred in 2010, when blacks were only 10 percent of the overall electorate, compared to 13 percent two years earlier. Democrats of course lost both elections.
Obama probably could have been elected in 2008 without such a high black turnout, as he won by a huge electoral margin, but African-Americans helped tip states like North Carolina to the Democratic column for the first time in decades.
This time, Obama is expected to perform much worse than in 2008 among moderate voters and working-class whites. To win, he will be more reliant on the votes of African-Americans (and people under 30 and Latinos as well) than in 2008. As the Urban League detailed, a small drop-off in black turnout would make it hard for him several key states.
And his campaign is well aware of that. While the president did not appear at the NAACP, Obama will speak to the National Urban League next week. These appearances of course are more symbolic than anything else, as most people who attend such conventions are almost certain to vote rather than stay home anyway.
More importantly, the Obama campaign is planning to invest heavily in reaching black voters across the country, particularly in key states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where African-American turnout is critical. It is hiring lawyers and preparing a legal strategy to make sure voters in Pennsylvania, which has a new voter ID law, have the proper materials and are able to cast legal votes. (African-Americans disproportionately lack driver’s licenses.)
Obama is likely to spend less time courting African-American elites and activists than those of other groups, meaning he may attend the conferences of Latino organizations more than black ones this year. He will almost certainly do more interviews with Latino media organizations like Univision than black outlets such as theGrio.
But that reflects differences of tactics, not taking people for granted. Obama’s support among Latinos is strong, but not rock-solid, so the speeches could play a role in changing their minds about the president’s policies. On the other hand, black voters largely agree with Obama’s policies; the challenge s is making sure they are as motivated on Election Day as they were four years ago. That motivation is more likely to come from neighbors and friends urging them to vote than a speech Obama delivers to the NAACP in July.
Harris has questioned if Obama’s policies have done enough to help African-Americans, and if that is in part because black leaders have had trouble questioning the president’s leadership
as they would a white politician.
Whether his policies should have more directly targeted African-Americans is a legitimate question.(The health
care law, while not written as a “civil rights” bill, disproportionately helps blacks, who are uninsured at higher rates than other groups. But the president has largely rejected ideas from liberals
to target economic aid to black communities)
But it’s not clear that comes from taking blacks for granted either. Some ex-Obama advisers have admitted the 2009 stimulus bill should have been larger, and that could have prevented the layoffs of black teachers and other government employees that have happened over the last three years. Obama’s team did not anticipate the unemployment would remain this high among blacks, or Americans overall.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr