Here, in North Carolina, African American voter turnout increased by 127,000 from the previous presidential election in 2004. It was that surge that helped to give then-Sen. Barack Obama the slim 14,177-vote victory he needed to carry North Carolina, a longtime Republican-leaning state.
Analysts say that black voter turnout, especially in swing states like North Carolina, could mean the difference between victory or defeat for President Obama in November. In mid July, the National Urban League released “The Hidden Swing Voters,” an extensive report about the role of the African American electorate in 2012. Because African Americans had the greatest increase in voter turnout in 2008, that demographic will also likely experience the greatest decrease this time around if numbers return to their norm, the Urban League speculates. This could mean that the Obama campaign will struggle in states like N.C., Virginia and Ohio, where African Americans tipped the scales in his favor just four years before, the report theorizes.
Dr. John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, said North Carolina may in fact favor Republican Mitt Romney over Obama this election season. He believes that some of the energy the campaign generated in 2008 was due to the historic nature of the race, and may be difficult to duplicate this time around.
“North Carolina was just a surprise win for Democrats in 2008. There’s always the likelihood that in a normal election year, that a state would revert back to its normal pattern,” said Dinan, who has taught for over 15 years. “…That’s the challenge of the Obama campaign, to try to reduce that drop-off and try to keep people energized.”
Cameron French, North Carolina press secretary for Obama for America, said the Urban League report confirmed what the Obama campaign already knew.
“I think the report shows just how powerful the African American community can be in this election, and in any election,” he commented. “It’s really a call to action.”
French said the campaign is thinking outside the box to reach African Americans across the state through initiatives like the Barber Shop and Beauty Salon (B&B) program – which provides shops with literature and voter registration drop boxes – and the Congregation Captain, where members of faith-based organizations work to engage other people of faith.
“The centerpiece of our campaign is grassroots organizing and grassroots organizing doesn’t necessarily happen in a field office,” French said.
Data from Rasmussen Reports, a polling agency, shows promising results for the Obama campaign, as 71 percent of African Americans reported being “very excited’ about voting in the upcoming election, compared to only 47 percent of whites. Rasmussen also found that the African-American electorate in North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia has grown much faster than the non-African-American electorate over the past four years.
“African Americans across North Carolina are enthusiastically engaged in the President’s re-election campaign several months before November, recognizing the role they play in continuing the President’s historic journey to a second term,” French stated. “…North Carolina voters know President Obama’s commitment to restoring middle class security and making sure that hard work pays off stands in stark contrast to Mitt Romney’s history as an outsourcing pioneer shipping jobs overseas instead of creating jobs here at home…”
Chenita Barber Johnson, president of the African American Caucus of Forsyth County, said the caucus, a subsidiary of the NC Democratic Party, is working hard to make sure African American voters know what is at stake if they stay home this Election Day, with voter registration and voter education efforts across the county.
“We stand to lose a lot of what we’ve gained if the African American community is not really energized to support Obama in the presidential election,” said the city native. “…We did make history (in 2008). People said we couldn’t do it. Now that we’ve done it, we have to keep the history moving forward, by keeping him in office.”
Barber Johnson, who has led the Caucus for the past two years, said she believes the 2010 election, in which many Democrats fell to Republican contenders in the state and across the nation, was a stark reminder that low participation can lead to big changes.
“I really think the election of 2010 was a wake-up call. I think it really shocked a lot of people,” she remarked. “Because of what happened in 2010, we understand now how fragile and how wonderful our democracy is.”
African American voters have heavily favored Democratic candidates for decades, Dinan said, but what made the difference in 2008 was the enthusiasm for the Obama campaign.
“There’s no surprise who they voted for,” he remarked. “The big change there was they turned out in greater numbers than ever before.”
Dinan said young voters, who overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008, but are traditionally more divided on their support than African Americans, will be another key group to watch in this election cycle. In a state like North Carolina, where the margin in the last election was so slim, every vote – and every demographic – matters, Dinan said.
“When you win by 14,000 votes, in a state with several million voters, any of those votes is important,” he remarked. “Every group is a potentially pivotal voting group.”