Black voters key to NC presidential race

Campaigns court in churches, barber shops, beauty parlors

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJuly 25, 2012 

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The Obama campaign installed a voter registration box at Nicholson's Barber & Style Shop in Raleigh Wednesday, July 25, 2012. The Obama campaign is making efforts to maintain the high support it enjoyed from black voters in 2008.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

  • By the numbers 14,177 The number of votes Obama carried North Carolina by in 2008 127,000 The increase in black turnout in the state between 2004 and 2008 1,374,654 The number of blacks currently registered to vote in the state. State Board of Elections

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Dale Mitchell, a 54-year-old small businessman from Charlotte, plans to vote for President Barack Obama again.

“I like a lot of the things that he’s trying to do,” said Mitchell, who was selling caps he makes at a General Baptist State Convention meeting in Raleigh this week. “He just doesn’t seem to be getting support (in Congress). Every time he comes up with something, they vote it down. He is not really given a fair chance.”

Mitchell, who has never been particularly involved in politics, is among the thousands of African-American voters whom the Obama campaign is counting on to help him carry North Carolina again in November.

There is discontent about the economy – unemployment in North Carolina’s black community is 19 percent. And many African-Americans disagreed with the president’s support for same-sex marriage. But while Obama’s support among white voters has eroded in North Carolina since he narrowly carried the state in 2008, his backing among African-Americans has remained strong. That is a major reason why Obama remains locked in a tight race with Republican Mitt Romney in the state.

It is also why the Obama campaign has launched a vigorous voter registration effort in the black community, including putting registration forms in hundreds of barber shops and beauty parlors across the state. This weekend, Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle will visit some of the shops and parlors in Raleigh and Durham to promote the program.

In black churches across the state this weekend, the Obama campaign will launch its congregation captains program to find people willing to organize their congregations through phone banks in homes or small meetings.

“There is no question that the African-American vote is critical to the president’s re-election and for us to win North Carolina,” said U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-Wilson, a key ally of the president. “The African-American vote was a major piece of the president’s win in ’08. Our challenge now is to repeat the enthusiasm and repeat the turnout we experienced in ’08.”

Stirred by the historic nature of the Obama candidacy, black turnout increased in the Tar Heel state by 127,000 votes from 2004 to the 2008 presidential elections. It provided the difference in a state that Obama carried by only 14,177 votes.

A National Urban League study released last week found that if black voter turnout in North Carolina this fall drops back to 2004 levels, Obama would lose North Carolina. The report said that in no other state would black turnout likely play such a pivotal role.

The report was released in advance of Obama’s speech Wednesday to the Urban League conference in New Orleans.

Earlier this month, Romney spoke to the NAACP convention in Houston, where he said the president had fallen short on helping lift people out of poverty, and where he spoke of the efforts of his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, to speak out against segregation in the 1960s.

The ‘group most excited’

Black voters were, of course, only one reason why North Carolina turned blue in 2008. Obama also did better among white voters, carrying 35 percent of the white votes, compared to 27 percent for Democratic Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

But as the nation’s first black president, Obama’s connection to the African-American community remains special.

Obama has an 87 percent approval rating among African-American voters in North Carolina, according to a survey taken earlier this month by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm in Raleigh. He has only a 34 percent approval rating among North Carolina’s white voters, according to the survey.

“Obama has many worries, but the black community is the least of his worries,” said Tom Jensen, the polling firm’s director. “African-Americans are the single group most excited about voting this fall, just as they were in 2008.”

Polling shows that 71 percent of African-Americans are “very excited” about voting in the upcoming election, compared to 47 percent for whites, Jensen said.

Obama’s support was evident among General Baptist State Convention attendees this week.

Margaret Johnson, 65, a retired health care technician from Knightdale, said that as a committed Christian, she disagreed with Obama on same-sex marriage but was willing to overlook her disagreement because she agrees with him on a broad range of other issues, including helping the disadvantaged.

Johnson downplayed Obama’s race in her decision.

“I have been voting for white presidents all my life,” Johnson said. “My daddy was a Republican. I loved Eisenhower. I voted for Reagan. I feel that President Obama loves everybody.”

Archie Lofton, 69, a retired nuclear fuels instrumentation technician from Wilmington, said he didn’t blame Obama for the unemployment problem.

“I think he inherited the situation,” Lofton said. “I recollect a couple of days after he took office, the opposing party said they wanted him to fail. They don’t want him to succeed. For anybody to be a good president, you got to get support across the (party) lines.”

‘Ambassadors and surrogates’

The national turnout among African-Americans in 2008 was a record 64.7 percent, and for the first time nearly equaled white turnout.

If turnout in the black community were to fall to more traditional levels of 60 percent, the National Urban League report said, Obama will likely lose 63,706 votes in North Carolina.

Which is why the Obama campaign has been active in the black community. “We are going to engage black pastors all across the state,” Butterfield said.

There are 930 black churches in his 1st congressional district alone, Butterfield said, and while it is not appropriate that they politick in the churches, he is asking that they become “our ambassadors and our surrogates” outside the churches.

In February, the Obama campaign held an event at N.C. Central University in Durham aimed at students attending historically black colleges. It drew such figures as Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, Valerie Jarrett, a top White House adviser, and actress Gabrielle Union.

First Lady Michelle Obama gave the commencement address at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro.

The state NAACP is in the middle of a registration drive designed to register 40,000 new voters before November. Earlier this month, it held training meetings in Winston-Salem and Wilson. The goal is to get 1,000 churches, temples or mosques to register 100 percent of their members by Aug. 28.

“We will,” Butterfield said, “have a ground game unlike anything North Carolina has ever seen before.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532