Black voters still energized

President Obama and MTV video jockey Sway Calloway participate in a youth town hall event at the BET Studios in Washington.
President Obama and MTV video jockey Sway Calloway participate in a youth town hall event at the BET Studios in Washington. (Jim Watson)

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By Krissah Thompson and Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 15, 2010

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."


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