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Black Turnout Key to Obama’s Chances

POSTED: September 15, 2008, 12:00 am

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As the presidential election grinds toward D-Day – November 4 – there is widespread speculation over which voting blocs hold the key to victory for the two major party candidates. For Senator John McCain the path to the White House appears to be through the support of conservative, evangelical Christian voters, so-called “Reagan Democrats” in Rustbelt states and southern Republicans. Though the addition of Governor Sarah Palin has created buzz for the McCain camp, the Alaskan will likely not inspire many women leaning toward Senator Obama to jump ship. In fact, recent polling suggests Palin may have more of an effect on white male voters than women.

For Senator Obama the picture becomes a bit murky. Standing as the first Black candidate with a legitimate chance at winning the presidency, he is stepping into uncharted waters. The fact is no one can predict with any certainty the voting behavior of whites when they will be asked to pull the lever for a Black candidate running for president in a general election. The talk of a “Bradley effect” or a “Dinkins effect” is driven by memories of white voter abandonment of those two candidates when they ran for governor of California and mayor of New York City respectively.

The primary season does provide some idea of the potential voting strength of several constituencies that enabled Senator Obama to wrestle the Democratic Party nomination from his chief rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. First time, college age voters and young professionals were a key voting bloc for the Illinois lawmakers and remain a fervent base of support. Senator Obama also did well among men; a bloc that might be up for play if an early indication of Governor Palin’s support among males holds. Black voters lined up behind Senator Obama despite early flirtations with the Clinton campaign and some preliminary debate over the senator’s racial identity.

Senator Obama struggled with women voters, no doubt due to the appeal of Senator Clinton as a candidate breaking gender barriers, and struggled to find his footing among Latino voters. In the context of the general election that does not appear to be an issue. He is running well among women voters and Latino voters appear to have overwhelmingly shifted their allegiance to Senator Obama. It remains to be seen whether he can wrestle white, working class men to his corner with the presence of Senator McCain, someone whose war credentials is just the type of profile with which white men in Rustbelt states can identify. So even if Senator Obama cuts into the women voting bloc and makes inroads with white males, the closeness of this election suggest that Black voters will play a decisive role in who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

To have a fighting chance, Senator Obama must drive record breaking Black voter turnout. Despite the enthusiasm among Blacks for the Obama candidacy, recent history shows that the Black electorate will require a concentrated get out the vote effort to translate the emotional support into real votes.

The November 2006 midterm elections provide some sense of the disposition of the Black electorate. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in that election 48 percent of voting age citizens cast ballots. It was the highest voter turnout for a midterm election since 1994. Overall, turnout in the 2004 congressional election increased by 8 million people per year over 2002. In 2006 61 percent of Blacks registered to vote but only 41 percent of Blacks actually voted in the November election that year.

The Census data also indicates differences among Black voter turnout depending upon the region of the country. Turnout was highest for Blacks in the Midwest (47.5 percent) and the South (40.9 percent). Black voter turnout will have to be significantly higher in those areas if Senator Obama is to have a chance at winning. Recent reports from several areas seem to indicate that Black voter registration has picked up considerably. While no guarantee of turnout, a spike in Black voter registration signals that the Black electorate may be moved to vote in record numbers. In North Carolina Black voter registration increased almost 10 percent over 2004, making Blacks 20 percent of the electorate. A similar dynamic has been reported in Alabama where Black registrants now almost approximate the proportion of Blacks in the overall population.

One of the disturbing revelations of Census Bureau data is the reasons that Blacks gave for not registering to vote in 2006. They include not being interested in the election or politics (40.8 percent), missing the registration deadline (15.7 percent) and not knowing where or how to vote (7.5 percent). Almost 7 percent of Blacks who failed to register said they did not do so because they “didn’t know or refused.”

Similarly the reasons given for not voting suggest the Obama camp has its work cut out. According to Census data some 24.4 percent of Blacks who did not vote indicated that they were too busy or had scheduling conflicts, 11.2 percent indicated they were not interested and 9.9 percent said they didn’t know about the election or simply refused to vote. There were two other reasons that the Democratic candidate needs to take into consideration: 13.1 percent of Black non-voters in 2006 said they did not cast ballots because they were ill and 7.5 percent said they forgot to vote. In both instances the use of absentee ballots may be the proper recourse to capture Black voters who fell into either of the latter two explanations for non-voting.

With most states approaching their voter registration deadlines, the number of registrants and new voters on the rolls in particular, will provide an early indication of the prospective ground troops of both campaigns. Given the Obama campaign’s prolific fundraising, a wise investment may be in executing a precedent setting GOTV operation in Black communities throughout the country. Southern states will be particularly critical despite the media’s fascination with Pennsylvania and Ohio. In the south large numbers of Blacks have returned to their roots and their relocation translates into considerable electoral power. Likewise the dozens of historically Black colleges and universities in southern states could conceivably give Senator Obama a lift. Students attending these institutions are not on the radar screens of most observers. Casting their vote in the home community of their college campus could be a windfall for Obama.

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