Black voters may be just as engaged as they were in 2008, polls show

By Krissah Thompson and Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 10:52 PM

Will black voters turn out in November?

Historically, black turnout for midterm elections has lagged behind the national average, but two new reports offer a bullish outlook for this year.

A major survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that 80 percent of black Democrats are as interested or more interested in the midterms than they were in the 2008 presidential election, when their enthusiasm helped propel Barack Obama into office.

This year, 62 percent of all black Democrats say they're likely to encourage others to support certain candidates, according to the survey, compared with 47 percent of white Democrats and 57 percent of all Republicans.

And the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which researched the black electorate, said in a report Thursday that African American participation in November may be higher than in many past midterm elections.

The report points to parallels in recent history. In 1986, two years after the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president and mobilized black voters, the gap between black and white turnout narrowed significantly. African Americans also voted in high numbers in the 1998 midterm elections - a fact that David Bositis, who wrote the report, attributed in part to high support among blacks for President Bill Clinton.

African Americans voted in record numbers in 2008, and Obama's favorability rating among the group is 87 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The Obama administration and the Democratic Party - eager to capitalize on this enthusiasm as they defend their majorities in Congress - have stepped up outreach efforts to blacks in recent days.

In Philadelphia last Sunday, Obama made a specific appeal to African American voters, saying they must defy the conventional wisdom that they will sit out the midterms. "You've got to prove them wrong," he said. On Monday, he had a private meeting with black bloggers. He will meet Friday with a group of prominent black columnists, and he has done several interviews for prominent black radio shows.

Even so, it may not be enough to turn the tide for Democrats, said Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic demographer who is a senior fellow at both the Century Foundation and American Progress. He called enthusiasm among conservative voters sky high. (The survey found that 90 percent of Republicans are as interested or more interested in this year's elections than they were in the 2008 race.)

"The current situation for Democrats looks pretty bleak, but that's no surprise to anyone," he said. "The Democrats are going to get whacked, but those numbers are not set in stone. Blacks and other Democratic-leaning groups can turn out at levels higher than some of these polls suggest."

As part of the Democratic outreach effort, first lady Michelle Obama has hit the airwaves, talking to morning radio deejay Tom Joyner on Wednesday when she began a campaign swing in Milwaukee. Noting the black community's support for her husband, she said that showing up again at the voting booth (preferably early) is critical because "Barack can't do this alone."

The DNC recently increased its commitment to advertisements aimed at black voters, from $2 million to $3 million, and began airing a radio spot by civil rights leader Joseph Lowery that aims to link the Rev. Martin Luther King's youth-based freedom struggle to Obama.

"In 2008, we changed the guard," he says in the 60-second spot. "This year, we must guard the change. This is Reverend Joseph Lowery, asking you to stand on the shoulders of those who came before you. We owe it to the past; we owe it to the future."

Other administration officials have also fanned out to black outlets. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett appears in this month's Essence magazine, and Elizabeth Warren, who is helping to set up a consumer protection agency, will appear on television commentator Roland Martin's black-oriented political show.

In addition to the administration's efforts, a record number of Congressional Black Caucus members are facing challengers, which has forced many of them to work harder to get their supporters to vote. And the Rev. Al Sharpton said Thursday that he will travel the country next week holding "Souls to the Polls" events at African American churches. He planst to shop in Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia and other cities.

"So often, the effort to turn out black voters is invisible to the larger white society," Bositis said. "It is happening in black organizations. It is happening in black churches. This isn't something you're going to watch in real time on the Web and television."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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