POLITICS

Obama counts on Virginia’s black voters

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Photo - President Barack Obama holds a campaign rally at Centreville High School. Virginia is a crucial swing state that Obama won four years ago, and minority turnout could determine the outcome in the state. (AP photo)
President Barack Obama holds a campaign rally at Centreville High School. Virginia is a crucial swing state that Obama won four years ago, and minority turnout could determine the outcome in the state. (AP photo)
Politics,Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Gerard Williams walked out of Phoebus High School in Hampton, Va., with hundreds of other mostly African-American residents after listening to President Obama's pitch for re-election wondering if the enthusiasm and energy felt so intensely in that gymnasium on a summer afternoon would still be there come Election Day this November.

"The downturn of the economy really affected so many people and it's been slow to get ready [for the election]," said Williams, a teacher for Newport News Public Schools. "We have to do our part. We have to get our peers involved and get them excited again."

Black voters like Williams turned out in historically high numbers four years ago to help make Obama the nation's first African-American president. In Virginia alone, 200,000 more black voters went to the polls in 2008 than turned out in 2004 for Democrat John Kerry, for a jump of nearly 44 percent that made Obama the first Democratic presidential contender to win Virginia in nearly 50 years.

  Number of white voters (in thousands)  Percent change Number of black voters (in thousands)  Percent change
  2004 2008   2004 2008
Colorado 1,972 2,137 8.4 56 81 44.6
Florida 6,349 6,806 7.2 815 985 20.9
Nevada 763 850 11.4 56 105 87.5
N. Carolina 2,736 3,331 21.8 784 919 17.2
Ohio 4,802 4,722 1.6 586 680 16.0
Penn. 5,291 5,126 (3.1) 474 535 12.9
Virginia 2,585 2,778 7.5 477 685 43.6
Source: U.S. Census

The story was the same in other battleground states. Turnout among blacks increased at a far greater pace in 2008 than it did among white voters in key states like Colorado, Florida and Nevada, and almost all of that black support -- 95 percent -- went to Obama.

African-Americans overwhelmingly support Obama's re-election bid this year despite his three often rocky years in office and lingering economic problems. Polls show 90 percent or more of black voters supporting the president over Republican Mitt Romney. Indeed, minority support for Obama is so substantial that his campaign is reportedly projecting that he can win with as little as 40 percent of the white vote.

But the bigger question for Obama, as Williams wondered, is whether African-Americans and other minority groups hit particularly hard by the recession will turn out this fall in the same numbers as 2008, particularly in must-win Virginia and a handful of other swing states that could well decide the race.

"[Black voters'] identity was a motivating factor in getting people who otherwise wouldn't vote to the polls because they wanted to be a part of it" in 2008, said Jan Leighley, an American University expert on race and voting patterns. "What's different this year is with the economy, and as much as the white population is unhappy about their economic fortunes, African-Americans are probably hurt more."

To help ensure a large turnout by black voters, Obama has gone to places like Hampton to talk to predominantly black audiences. He'll meet Wednesday with the National Urban League, one of the country's oldest civil rights groups.

"[Obama] needs the support of the African-American community in order to continue to bring positive change to our community," Obama spokeswoman Clo Ewing said.

A National Urban League study released last week shows that if turnout by black voters drops back to 2004 levels this fall, Obama would lose several crucial swing states, including North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio, seriously endangering his hopes for re-election.

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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