As midterms approach, Democrats are reaching out to black voters

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 11:44 PM

One thing is for sure this election year for many Democrats: They are not making it about President Obama. The man who was so popular two years ago is not in their stump speeches and certainly not in their ads. If he shows up in town, they happen to have a prior commitment. Some even boast of opposing him.

But there is one group for whom Democrats want to make it all about Obama: African Americans.

In the past week, party leaders launched a drive to stoke enthusiasm among black voters, dusting off the president's 2008 campaign logo, lingo and grass-roots strategy to get them to the polls in November. The party has backed a $2 million ad buy targeted at urban newspapers and radio stations with a simple message: "Stand With President Obama. Vote November 2."

And Obama has gotten involved, granting interviews to black radio personalities and trumpeting his administration's record on diversity, civil rights and higher education in front of large black audiences.

The president will speak at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation gala Saturday, where he will address the many steps his administration has taken to address the concerns of the African American community and the challenges that lie ahead.

The thinking behind the strategy is that African Americans are heavily invested in Obama and, if they can be convinced that the midterms are critical to his success, they will vote in larger than usual numbers. And if that happens, Democrats could prevail in some states, such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada, where they need to win to hold on to their majorities.

Although the loyalty to Obama is clear - polls show he has a 91 percent approval rating among blacks - translating that into votes for any given Democratic candidate is far from guaranteed.

"If you think it's a natural transition, then you are naive, but there is an opening that makes it possible," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who had several meetings with Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine and White House aides about turnout. "People will come out if they are called out. The enthusiasm won't be the same, but if we get a respectable percentage, then the losses won't be as bad."

Counting on high turnout for midterms is always a gamble, and a recent Gallup poll shows that the gap between white and black enthusiasm is even higher this year than in past midterm elections - 42 percent of whites are thinking about the November elections, whereas only 25 percent of blacks are focused on them. The gap was 8 percent in 2006.

The radio ads airing on black stations, produced by Fuse, the advertising agency that created the popular Obama barbershop posters in 2008, are an attempt to inform voters and generate interest. The opening line: "There is an important election in November, and it is called the midterm."

A print ad captures the pride, showing Obama circa 2008, surrounded by a group of black voters sporting campaign pins and smiling broadly as the candidate leans in to talk to an older African American woman.

The $2 million that the DNC has committed for the African American ad buy is nearly eight times as much as the party spent in 2006. In the coming days and weeks, the ads will go up in key states such as Florida, California, Maryland and Illinois, among others with sizable black populations.

Overall, the DNC has committed $50 million to reach out to new voters, a figure and a strategy that the Republican National Committee derided.

"They can attempt to attract these voters, but we still haven't seen one candidate ad where a candidate talks about their support of health care," said Doug Heye, spokesman for the RNC. "But we have seen ads where Democrats say they are going to stand up to Obama."

Indeed, many Democratic candidates haven't embraced Obama. When the president appeared in Wisconsin on Labor Day, Sen. Russell Feingold was nowhere to be found because of what he said were previous commitments. And when Obama landed at Miami International Airport in August, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink was not on the tarmac. In her successful primary battle, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) managed to straddle the fence, courting black voters with her Obama connection but distancing herself from the president in some ads. Arkansas has a 16 percent black population, which could affect the outcome of the general election.

Some Democratic strategists, who asked for anonymity because they don't want to criticize the party publicly, are skeptical of the ad campaign's effectiveness.

One said it amounts to "spitting in the wind," especially if candidates themselves don't embrace Obama. Another said that he hasn't seen nearly enough outreach to black voters by individual candidates, some of whom might be relying too heavily on Obama's popularity with the group.

Kaine said the DNC's goal is an 8 to 10 percent "Obama bump" over prior midterm participation, and that "investments in African American outreach is fundamental to that effort."

"This year we are investing more money and staff than any other midterm election in history to make sure that our message reaches voters," Kaine said.

Kaine has been making the rounds with black bloggers, columnists and radio personalities, including Michael Baisden, who has been telling his 5 million weekly listeners, "Don't let them punk our president."

According to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, there has been an upward trend in black participation in midterm elections in key states.

In Missouri, for instance, statewide black turnout increased from 45 percent in 2002 to 48.3 percent four years later, a gain that was critical to Claire McCaskill's U.S. Senate win. And in Ohio, which has tight gubernatorial and Senate races, black turnout increased from 38.4 to 44.6 percent from 2002 to 2006.

"I do think that there is certainly a possibility that black voters could be a real sleeper in this election," said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "The Democrats have substantial capabilities, and if they exercise those capabilities in place from the 2008 campaign, there is a very real opportunity to capitalize on that."

Another factor is important: The African American population is concentrated in 23 states and, this year, many of those states have competitive races.

"One in five people in Delaware is black," Bositis said. "Nevada has a comparatively small black population, 8.3 percent, but they have often voted above their weight and end up being 10 percent of people in exit polls. If black voters are 10 percent of the voters in Nevada, I can guarantee you that [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid will win."

Sharpton said the key will be door-to-door efforts and making the point that "we can't just vote one time and then pick up the change at the next counter."

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