Black voter turnout in 2012 may slide

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama will likely lose his re-election bid without a high turnout in African-American communities, but that turnout is being threatened by the economic pain suffered in urban communities during Obama’s administration.

This critical issue helps explain Obama’s meeting Thursday with two leading organizers in the African-American community, Marc Morial of the National Urban League and Benjamin Jealous of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It “remains to be seen” if African-American voter turnout will be reduced by the sour economy, Jealous said in an interview outside the White House. But he added: “What we learned from 2010 is when you stay home, you lose.”

The president listened to several job-creation proposals and will focus on jobs once the debt-ceiling debate is wrapped up, said Morial. The country faces a “great crisis in jobs … [and] we remain committed to a strong relationship with the president and his administration,” said Morial, who declined to discuss the economy’s impact on Election Day turnout.

“I think we will see a lower turnout,” said Star Parker, an African-American GOP activist. In 2008, “many were looking to make history,” but disillusionment with Obama and better GOP outreach to African-American social conservatives could make an election-winning difference in 2012, she said. In 2012, “he could lose up to 10 percent,” Parker concluded.

In the mid-term elections, African-American turnout declined from 13 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 10 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls.

African-Americans backed Obama by 95 percent in 2008 and voted in record numbers compared to their 2004 turnout. The increased 2008 turnout boosted his win by 4 percentage points, to a margin of 7.2 percent, over Republican John McCain. (President, congressional leaders reportedly near $3 trillion deal)

But a recent Pew poll of many groups in the United States showed that African-Americans had the steepest drop in confidence about the country’s economic future. Since April 2010, their confidence level has fallen 22 points, and was just 40 percent in June. In comparison, college graduates’ confidence level fell 15 points to 35 percent and independents’ fell 12 points to 24 percent.

That steep drop reflects the increased unemployment among African-Americans, now at 16.2 percent, which is twice the white unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.

But even that dismal unemployment number understates the economic pain, much of which is described in a July 11 report by the Department of Labor titled “The Black Labor Force in the Recovery.”

Data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that only 43 percent of African-American men ages 18 to 29 have a full-time job, and only 58 percent of African-American men older than 16 have either full-time or part-time work. Those numbers exclude full-time students and incarcerated people.

The black middle-class has also been hit hard by by the federal government’s long-term program to boost home ownership rates. That program created a real-estate bubble that burst in 2008, leaving many unmarried parents facing dire economic straits and many African-American home-buyers owing more than their homes was worth. The combined result of this turmoil was an 83 percent drop in the net worth of the median African-American household.

In 2004, half of black households had a net worth less than $13,450. By 2009, that median number had fallen to $2,170, according to a March 24 study by the D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute. In contrast, the median net worth of white households fell 24 percent to $97,860 during the same period.

“It is unquestionable that blacks are highly supportive of the president,” said Parker. “As with any group, there’s pride when someone goes further and represents their ethnicity. That said, I’m hopeful that a core percentage of African-Americans … will use their heads and nor their heart,” Parker said.

To regain African-American votes, Parker said, Republicans have to invest long before the election. “On social issues, there is an open door for Republicans to engage,” she said, adding that those social issues include family support and immigration curbs.

In 2010, voters elected two African-American Republicans to Congress. They are Florida Rep. Allen West, and South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott, whose district includes Fort Sumter, where the civil war began. And in 2004, George W. Bush earned 12 percent of the African-American vote.

But African-American Democrats say their alliance with the Democratic Party has paid dividends.

“African-Americans have a tendency to be — how shall I put it? — morally conservative but politically progressive,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s senior vice-president for advocacy and policy.

African-Americans have gained much from this administration, including the health care law, S-CHIP healthcare coverage for kids, stimulus spending, the reduction of excessive penalties for crack-cocaine possession, and extra aid for students, Shelton said.

On immigration, “there’s no question that there’s tension” between blacks and Hispanics, especially over scarce low-wage jobs, he said. But in government, “you find that Latinos and African-Americans have strong points of alignment,” that allow them to rally behind many policies pushed by Democrats.

Today’s high unemployment rate “is part of the picture, but … most African-Americans realized that Barack Obama inherited two wars and an economic downturn,” and can’t fix the economy easily, Shelton added.

In 2004, 56 percent of eligible African-Americans turned out to vote, but that number was pushed up to 67 percent in 2008, said Shelton. In 2012, the NAACP’s 2,200 state and local units “will be working to maximize voter participation,” said Shelton, who also said the NAACP is a nonpartisan group that will not endorse any candidate.

But that kind of turnout machine is vital for Obama’s campaigns in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other swing-states.

On July 11, the White House announced its “Strong Cities, Strong Communities,” a program designed to help officials in six cities use federal resources to revitalize neighborhoods. To showcase this small-scale project, the White House press conference included domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, and labor secretary  Hilda Solis.

Jealous said Thursday that Obama supported proposed regulations of company hiring practices. Such regulations would make it more difficult for companies to exclude people with bad credit or criminal records, he said.

To some extent, this is similar to the White House’s outreach to other bases of support. For example, on July 20 the President met with the Circle of Protection, a left-of-center coalition of Christians, and is slated to speak at the National Council of  La Raza’s annual convention on July 25. Obama’s campaign team regards the growing Hispanic vote as critical to his campaign.

“The President meets regularly with leaders to discuss a range of topics, including economic stability and job creation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said July 21 before Obama met with Morial and Jealous. Carney offered little information about the meeting, however. “He will thank both leaders … for their contributions in under-served communities across the country and congratulate them on their upcoming conventions.  As you know, both organizations have conventions.”

Obama will not be speaking this year at the conventions of the NAACP or the National Urban League.

The Republican candidate should attend next year’s NAACP convention, said Shelton. “Whomever is in the race next summer, the NAACP will be inviting them to the national convention … [where] they can tell them why are they are the best [candidate] in the country.”