“Fired up? Ready to go?’’
The old battle cry from 2008 was going strong at the African-American Caucus meeting Wednesday at the Democratic convention. Hilda Wiltz, 51, a delegate from Rayne, La., worked up a sweat leading the call and response in the Charlotte Convention Center.
What will she say to voters back home who don’t share her excitement on Election Day?
“What time can I pick you up?” she quipped, adding, “You shouldn’t question our commitment.”
To be sure, the enthusiasm in a room of hundreds of black Democratic activists gathered for the convention isn’t a fair barometer of the African-American community at large. Surveys suggest black voters overwhelmingly support the president, but will they go the polls in force like they did in 2008 this time, with so many of his promises unfulfilled? Four years after Obama swept the country off its feet with hope and change, unemployment among African-Americans rages at 14.1 percent.
Announcing his Black Leadership Council on Wednesday, Republican nominee Mitt Romney said his supporters “know all too well that the economic downturn that has continued to hammer our country has been even more devastating for black Americans.”
Republican strategists also suggest Obama’s embrace of gay marriage earlier this year will discourage churchgoing black voters from going to the polls.
Turnout among African-Americans and Hispanics will be more important than ever to Obama in November; polls have shown his projected share of the white vote has been declining. In one troubling sign for the president, 76 percent of black voters in a Gallup poll in June said they will definitely vote in November, 2 percentage points lower than the national average and 8 points lower than four years ago. And 4 percent of black voters said they were less interested in voting in November than they were in 2008, according to a BET News survey conducted by Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who advises the Obama campaign.
In an election as close as this one, a percentage point here or there in toss-up states with large minority populations like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia could make all the difference.
Yet President Obama rarely mentions race and is unlikely to do so on Thursday, except possibly in the context of talking about his own background. He is not expected to address the concerns of many Democrats that new voting rules passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures will suppress minority voting.
Race has barely crossed the lips of other African-American speakers, in contrast to the frequent and overt appeals to female, Hispanic, Jewish, and gay voters. That’s because Obama has implemented policies related to birth control, immigration, Israel, and gay rights that directly affect those groups, campaign officials said.
Black voters will be addressed, they said, when Obama talks about “growing the middle class” and other mainstream issues. Campaign ads airing on black radio stations tout the administration’s health care overhaul and education policy.
“Our goal is to do as well in the African-American community in November as we did in 2008, if not better,” said campaign spokeswoman Clo Ewing. “Even more important to people than electing the first black president is protecting his policies.”
And his legacy. Conversations with African-American political insiders, delegates, and Charlotte residents who aren’t attending the convention revealed a litany of motivations for voting in November that suggest the community has evolved beyond the desire to elect one of its own for the first time.
“No, we’re not making history this time,” said Democratic consultant Tasha Cole, who has worked for black members of Congress from Florida. “But the African-American community will not underestimate what’s at stake.”
Several black voters brought up a statement made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to National Journal less than two years after Obama’s inauguration: “The single most important thing we want to achieve for President Obama is to be a one-term president.” Even some of the nondelegates who aren’t paying close attention to the race and don’t know McConnell’s name, recalled the gist of what he said. Although many Democrats view McConnell’s statement purely as brute partisanship, some black voters perceived a racial undercurrent.
“I heard, ‘We don’t care if we burn the country down. Our single purpose is to make sure he fails,’ ” said Debra Young, 54, a delegate from Washington, D.C. “I didn’t think such hatred existed.”
“If he wasn’t an African-American president, he wouldn’t have had such problems with the Congress, and I know that having lived what I have lived through,” said 82-year-old Lily Valentine, a delegate from Chicago.
Republicans reject the idea that they have worked as obstructionists, insisting that Obama forced a partisan agenda upon them and ignored their input. The $787 billion economic stimulus package and the health care overhaul were shoved down their throats, they say, by an arrogant, misguided Democratic president wielding majority control of Congress.
But the fact is that some black voters perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the GOP had racially tinged motivations for blocking Obama’s policies. They also bristle at the malicious rumor-mongering by “birthers” who claim that Obama was not born in the United States.
“I’ve never seen such disrespect shown a president, not Clinton, not Bush,” Cole said. “It goes way beyond partisanship, it’s because he’s African-American, and he didn’t come from their community and didn’t follow the traditional path to power.”
“They didn’t give him a fair shake,” said Pat Jenkins, a 65-year-old nurse in Charlotte who is not a delegate. “Every Republican just wants to knock him down.”
All three of Jenkins’ adult sons are unemployed, yet she doesn’t fault the president for the sluggish economy. Neither does Ginger Nancy, 41, who lost her job at a bank about one year ago.
“I just feel like he’s done the best he can with what he was handed,” she said as she pushed her 18-month-old daughter in stroller through uptown Charlotte. “You do hear more skepticism than you heard in 2008, so I hope his speech will offer some renewed hope.”
Some black voters say their commitment to Obama was sealed when Romney, a wealthy former corporate executive, secured the GOP nomination.
“He can’t relate to middle- and lower-class people,” said Cynthia Dickerson, a 53-year-old delegate from Charlotte. “Look at the audience he was speaking to at the convention.”
“For the record, I counted two” African-Americans at the Tampa convention, chimed in Audrey King-Rubie, a 51-year-old delegate from New York City. “He’s not speaking about our interests.”
Dickerson and King-Rubie had come to the African-American Caucus meeting mainly to see first lady Michelle Obama, who gave a rousing pep talk. She insisted that the delegates work on voter turnout “every single day. Really, listen to me. Every single day.”
The fired-up, ready-to-go delegates filtered out of the packed room to the sounds of a Stevie Wonder classic:
Gonna keep on tryin’
Till I reach the highest ground
This article appears in the September 6, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.