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Black voters may hold key to White House

29 October 2012, 10:31

New York - One thing that won't keep President Barack Obama awake at night ahead of 6 November is whether America's blacks still have his back. They adore him.

But will they actually show up to vote on election day? For the president, that's where electoral nightmares could begin.

Polls show virtually all blacks in the United States favour Obama over Republican Mitt Romney - partly because he became the first black president in 2008, partly because they always heavily support Democrats.

A Pew poll from October put the numbers at 92% to 3%, basically unchanged from the 95% to 4% recorded in Obama's historic 2008 victory.

However, in a tourniquet-tight race, the real number to watch will be turnout.

Although blacks make up only 12% of the population, their unusually high 65% turnout in 2008 helped push Obama over the top. A dip this time could help drag him down, just as it did during the 2010 midterm congressional elections when Republicans trounced Democrats.

Feeling the jitters

"There's no question that the black vote was a key part of what they call the coalition of the ascendant in 2008, or that the absence of black voters hurt Democrats in 2010," David Scott, head of news at Black Entertainment Television (BET), said. "Any way you slice it, the black electorate is a big part of a potential re-election this year."

Scott said Obama supporters are feeling the jitters.

He noted that 2008's high turnout was led by black women but that in the almost euphoric excitement of Obama's rise even the usually less active black male voters also made an extra effort.

"No one's taking for granted that those surge votes are coming back," Scott said. "While there's no question he's got overwhelming approval in the black community, that doesn't necessarily mean turnout. He'll get 96%. The question is: Ninety-six percent of what?"

The answer may make all the difference in battleground states with large black communities, especially Florida, Ohio and Virginia, said Philip Wallach at the Brookings Institution.

"Whether Obama gets good turnout of the sort he got in 2008 could really be the difference in the election in those states," Wallach said.

14% black unemployment

One reason black turnout may dip would be familiar to many in the United States.

"Some people are having a change of heart, because they were expecting a little more from him in a shorter period of time," New York mother of two Sharoya Curry said, pushing a pram down a busy Manhattan street. "Some people feel he let them down."

If millions of Americans are feeling the stress of the country's economic slump, blacks feel it even more keenly: Unemployment in their community is above 14%, compared to 8% overall.

"It's mainly to do with the economy, because a lot of people are still out of work," said Curry, aged 29, although she stressed she was personally ready to give Obama more time.

Obama has caused friction in sections of the black electorate with his support for same-sex marriage, and, conversely, what some see as his insufficiently tough line against Wall Street and big business.

Hermene Hartman, editor of Chicago news outlet N'DIGO, which focuses on African Americans, said Obama has simply been brought down to earth - just like any president after a first term, but especially so given the high expectations.

Voter registration rules

"In 2008, you had the romance, you had this historical significance, and you had hope and change. Those were real viable entities that made for a movement," she said. "Now you have an incumbent running against his very own record."

Both camps are fighting tooth and nail to get their base to the polls. In Romney's case that means injecting enthusiasm into the white electorate, although Democrats allege that Republicans are simultaneously trying to restrict the Democrat-leaning ethnic minority vote.

At the centre of those allegations is a push largely by Republican state legislatures to tighten rules on voter registration. Proponents say this combats polling booth fraud, while critics see poorly masked voter suppression.

Measures include restricting early voting, curtailing the activity of voter registration organisations, and closer scrutiny of government-issue ID.

Scott, at BET, said while tougher rules may seem innocuous, they have the cumulative effect of dissuading legitimate voters from the poorest, non-white communities.

A cold day in black America

"We can perceive in some of those initiatives a political agenda to suppress the vote [like] where they focus on voter ID and end up disenfranchising an elderly black woman who was born in a place and era when birth certificates were not so neatly kept," he said.

"In a tight race - and this one is as tight as they come - that could really represent the difference between one outcome and another. So that's why folks in our community are so focused and exercised about it."

Blacks in America spent centuries powerless. Now, they've not only helped elect the first African American president, but have the pressure of knowing they may be the ones to decide whether he stays on.

A one-term Obama presidency would be "devastating" to many blacks, Scott said. "November 7 will be a cold day in black America if the president is not re-elected."



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