Four years ago, this predominantly black city was papered with “hope” and “change” signs. Before dawn on a cold Election Day, more than 300 people stood outside the 4th Ward polling place, waiting to cast their ballots, and black voter turnout was unprecedented — nearly three of four eligible voters made it to the polls.
“They had their canes and walkers,” said Mayor Brian Moore. “There was a lot of buzz [and] newness and the potential of the first African American president.”
“Now,” Moore said, “it’s just trying to recapture that.”
In the final sprint to this Election Day, the campaign signs around this Democratic stronghold south of Richmond have given way to signs of unease.
For the past four years, black voters have talked among themselves about waning optimism amid financial struggles, concern about the need to energize African Americans and the feeling that President Obama has not gotten the credit he deserves.
Here in Petersburg, which sits on the banks of the Appomattox River, there also is a steely determination that Obama must be reelected to prove that his 2008 victory was not a historic fluke.
“It is just a moment of pride that you want to continue,” said Petersburg Sheriff Vanessa Crawford, the first black woman to serve in the post. “You don't want to see that go. No.”
Enthusiasm among black voters for Obama, which was key to his victory four years ago, is taking on added significance in the final days before Nov. 6, given what polls show is essentially a tie nationally with Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
African Americans form Virginia’s largest minority — accounting for about 20 percent of the population and a similar share of the electorate. In 2008, the turnout rate among blacks matched that of whites for the first time, said Dustin A. Cable, a demographer at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
“The big question is whether minority groups will turn out like they did in 2008. That’s not just in Virginia. That’s everywhere,” Cable said. “If they do, Obama looks great. If not, Romney does.”
Since 2008, optimism among black and Latino voters has fallen as those populations have faced high unemployment, said University of Chicago political science professor Michael C. Dawson, who studies race and politics.
“Most black voters are more liberal than the president is on a number of issues,” he said, but added that “most black voters also realize that any president is limited in how much deep structural change they can enact — especially when you don’t have majorities in both chambers of Congress.”
According to the Washington Post-ABC News tracking polls, consistently more than nine in 10 black voters support Obama, which is roughly similar to 2008. But African Americans express less interest in this campaign than they did four years ago.
Sitting on a bench in downtown Petersburg, Timari Gohlson, 21, said she plans to vote for Obama but didn’t give him a ringing endorsement.
“We was worse off before,” said Gohlson, who works as an in-home care provider. “I’m not saying that President Obama does everything correct, but he’s trying.”
Interviews with 20 black voters here suggested that enthusiasm over Obama’s historic victory may have flagged, but there is also a sense that he has been given short shrift.
“At the end of the day, if he was a white president who has done the things he has done, he would be held in high regard,” said salon owner Darrin Hill, 43. “He killed Osama bin Laden. He reformed health care after 40 years of trying.”
Down the block from Hill’s salon, at Traditionz restaurant, Dwight Fields, a 33-year-old barber, said some of this “disrespect” could be erased by Obama’s reelection.
“If he does well as a black president, we’ll have another black president,” Fields said. “We got young children who think they can be anything now.”
To underscore its focus on this area, the Obama campaign is sending first lady Michelle Obama to Petersburg on Friday to rally voters at Virginia State University, a historically black institution.
Campaign workers and volunteers are once more visiting beauty salons and barber shops and have appointed congregation captains and DJs to boost the vote among black churchgoers and young voters.
Lise Clavel, the campaign’s Virginia state director, told reporters that in the past couple of weekends, the campaign hosted nearly 1,700 canvasses and phone banks and is planning the largest grass-roots campaign in the state’s history.
At a recent Wednesday night Bible studies class at Petersburg’s Tabernacle Baptist Church, attendees expressed support for Obama and said the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, which Obama supports, has not created a rift.
“There is a biblical position, but we have to separate church and state,” said Elva Ward, a leader in the church, who praised Obama. “In the last four years, everybody in my family who was unemployed became employed.”
This summer, Romney spoke to the NAACP convention and pitched himself as the candidate who could bring down the black unemployment rate, which has been falling but still hovers at 13.4 percent. But polls show Republicans have slowly lost ground since President George W. Bush pulled 11 percent of the black vote, a high mark for Republicans in modern times.
David A. Bositis, who studies the black electorate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said many black voters have been alienated by Republicans, with the push for more restrictive voting laws and some of the commentary about Obama.
“There’s almost a flashback to the civil rights era,” said Bositis, who expects black turnout this year to approach the rate four years ago.
Del. Rosalyn R. Dance, the area’s state legislator, agrees. “You may not see as many signs and people out there, but we are organized,” she said.
And the feeling in her home about this election is as intense as it was in 2008 — maybe more. As proof, she tells the story of her husband, yelling at the television during the first presidential debate: “Why is he nodding his head like he agrees with that man?”
As Obama continued to perform poorly, her husband began to feel lightheaded, and she had to take him to the hospital, where doctors said he had suffered a heart attack. Now, Dance checks his blood pressure before he tunes into election coverage. They cannot fathom an Obama loss.
“It’s personal,” Dance said. “Quite frankly, we already have buses lined up for inauguration.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.